Monday, January 7, 2008

Faust, Picard, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

What a paradoxical world we live in today. And I say this because the airways above us are filled with whizzing streams of wireless information. Aside the highways are lined cables where voices and rivers of data are flowing endlessly from one corner of the world to another. Our bookstores are filled with novels and volumes of endless trivia enough to fill our minds many times over. The books contradict themselves and each other, but yet we still have the time and patience to peruse through them. The internet and the media tell us what we want to hear, and what they want us to hear, although it is largely one and the same. We have become a society that is saturated with knowledge. One could even come close to say that we are drowning in an ocean of information.

Yet with all the news, sports, media coverage of X baby missing or Y being pregnant and Z bombing A because they don't like how they worship...etc..., I find myself wondering... are we really drowning, or are we simply searching for the information that we need... are we simply parched, adrift on some ocean where there is enough information to fill up the ocean, and yet none to satisfy us.

We spend the first 18 years of our lives going to school (and some of us considerably longer, in college), and learning from teachers and reading books made by the world's most renown thinkers, and then we graduate and go to our workplaces and learn very little more. The information that we receive outside of the academic world is little more than commercial nonsense, or information we need to carry on our jobs, forwarding the causes of society, earning our monies and paying our bills. But there should be something more to it than that. Recently there have been quite a few books come out dealing with general knowledge, and they have been big sellers. Perhaps it is because the publishers realize that common citizens see the few people that continue their educations, and still retain the knowledge in their heads, and then are shown in public on shows like Jeopardy!, and they yearn for that same knowledge. Perhaps they see people much like themselves on shows like Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? and they find themselves ashamed, deep down, and try to regain that learning that has sunken into their unconscious filing cabinets.

Perhaps this is a nostalgic yearning back to the times when academic learning was the primary goal of my life, back to the college days when the philosopher kings gave of their knowledge and I soaked it up like a sponge. I start to feel this way whenever I listen to college lectures that I've downloaded onto my computer and burned them onto CDs. Philosophy, history, literature... and the connections that link thought and reason and emotions together, like neurons firing in the brain... I guess the river metaphor is still applicable here, because neurons form river like systems in the brain that transfer electric currents that contain information, and with continuing education, those neurons form new connections, fire signals from one end of the pathways to another, ceaselessly learning and processing and connecting... it's all quite amazing, and absolutely satisfying.

So how do we get that education throughout our lives? Certainly, in this society, it is impossible to go to college the whole time. Because in this capitalist world, education costs money. Everything costs money. Lots of it. It would be more pleasing to the people who yearn for academic growth to have the philosophers and thinkers be able to give us their knowledge without the hassle of renumeration. Shouldn't the world endevor to give every man, woman, and child on Earth the education that they need to benefit the world, forward the progress of the human race, and make it a better place to live? What would happen if that ability to have a free education, all our lives, were to become a reality? What diseases would be cured? What marvelous works of literature and poetry would come out of the minds of the now uneducated? But maybe this illusion is more meant for the world of Star Trek than real life, for the reality is that an advantage like this is given only to those who can afford it. That the repressed are uneducated and poor because they have nothing to offer the free and rich in the way of recompense when it comes to getting an education.

But is it possible to get a free college education anyway? Certainly there must be a way to learn the knowledge of all humanity without spending lots of money to listen to professors that may or may not know what they are talking about. Thoreau's answer to this was to spend many hours at the public library, providing himself with the education he desired. There was no need to go to Harvard just to get an education, and for those that did, the rows of books at the library housed more knowledge than in the professors tiny brains. So indeed, it is possible to get a college education, through the public and college libraries, without the time and money of going directly to college.

There is, however, one problem. Often the time that it takes to go to the library (especially if it's a college one, the closest good college library is close to an hour away), and actually read the books and do the research is much more than what we have, living in the hectic world that we live in. If you looked at the life that Thoreau lived, he didn't have that problem. Sure there was work to be done, but there wasn't the hectic break-neck speed lifestyle that is so often experienced today. Don't get me wrong, I would do the full educational process with any subject given the resources and the time, but often I have neither. The one point in my daily activities in which I have time to devote to learning something is in my car driving to and from work. This only works with people who are audio learners, and only for people who don't take notes (which is very few people, actually.), but it is the best way I have found to process educational material in my daily routine. And this is done through the miracles of modern technology.

Plato's heirarchy in The Republic gives the highest position to philosopher-kings, whose job it was to rule and to teach, to not own property or marry, but rather to devote their time to both ruling and learning. Now while I'm not saying that is the best way for teachers to be, I do think that now, with the miracles of technology of the 21st century, it is time for college professors and teachers to begin making the plethora of knowledge that they have so painstakingly amassed available to the masses. The Internet is the most democratic device to have ever existed. Not since the days of the Academy in ancient Greece have professors been able to freely discuss ideas with students, educating the masses, and giving the individual the ability to learn and explore his or her own world. The current education system in America, where everyone is supposed to receive the same education, is obsolete and must be redone. Through the technology of today, professors can provide material on any subject at all to anyone in the world that is willing to take the time to understand it. Online assignments, quizzes, and tests, make the grading processes easy, at least as far as the understanding of the knowledge. And when it comes to applying that knowledge by writing essays or contributing to forums or chat rooms, this is when the Internet truly shines. I was fortunate enough to get into the developing stages of the WebCT program at GC&SU, and I can see such potential in the future development of this.

Also at GC&SU, Dr. Viau is among the first professors to use ipods and iTunes to provide material to his interdisciplinary courses. The use of MP3 technology to provide lectures instantly to anyone in the world is the main component of what I think would be a grand university that would rival Wikipedia in scope and stature. An "Open Source University" where professors and teachers would provide lessons and courses on every subject imaginable. It could be done while having normal classes, provided it was prepared well enough. The lectures could then be stored on University servers and linked to the Web. Modern broadband technology makes this possible.

As amazing as this sounds, I have serious doubts about it's implementation. There are already some colleges and programs that have started some of this. I can provide links at a later time, as I explore them. But the old regimes of universities, textbook companies, and state based schools would balk at the loss of revenue from tuition and the total annihilation of the educational system as we know it. Professors would at first resist, wanting to know where their paychecks would come from. But universities would still exist, and be just as wonderful a place as they always have been. They could still charge tuition and have brick and mortar buildings. But the main source of pay for professors would come from the state, whose job it would be to insure the intellectual property of the professors be upheld, as well as see that the needs of those professors be tended to. They should be some of the highest paid employees, much like that of entertainers. Because the results of free education for all citizens world wide would outweigh all investments that were put into revamping and maintaining such an amazing program. There is no reason, given the technology that we now have, why Moon landings should not have already happened. There is no reason why diseases should still linger when the potential knowledge of all the human beings on Earth could be used toward solving the problems that exist currently. And this is done by giving each and every person on this globe the chance to have a free education, to strengthen the natural talents and abilities that every person has, and to become the best individual that any one person could be. You see how idealistic this sounds. And yet how wonderful the rewards would be if it could actually happen.

What it would take now, for starters, is just a few professors starting a web site, much like Wikipedia, to store lectures and courses online for free. It could start in Milledgeville, with the wonderful professors that I miss hearing and talking to on a daily basis. GC&SU has the forward thinking and the ability to start something like this, and has the professors with the knowledge to give every person on this Earth a drink of knowledge. And once people have tasted that, it will become a need for people to expand their horizons.

I can already hear the people exclaiming that I have either proclaimed knowledge much as Faust would have done before making a deal with Mephistopheles, or Manfred, who was warned that the Tree of Knowledge is not the Tree of Life. Some would even warn that I should be careful, that knowledge is a sin that Eve partook of, and that is should be some religious undertaking I should be writing about. And it's true that moderation and balance is key to living any person's life. If we are all parched for knowledge, and our brains have grown weak from disuse, shouldn't we exercise our brains daily by giving it knowledge to process. And what better way to exercise our minds than to use that small portion of dormant time while driving to enhance and better our lives? Our body is our temple, so should not be our minds a temple as well? We cannot focus on exercise and diet and bettering ourselves physically without the exercise of our minds. And if personal growth is the core of living life, bettering one self, one's community, one's world, than isn't what I'm suggesting the best way to start this?

So until the time of Starfleet arrives, until the main goal of life is to better your own life and that of the world around you, rather than just making money, it is enough just to learn a little each day. To use time as wisely as possible to better you own self, mentally, physically...whatever. I'm not the best person to say this, but at least, if my physical life isn't the best in the world, I will still be able to learn and to process information. I hope I am not too egotistic to believe that, in the end, my writings, such as this blog, will allow me to pass on whatever I have learned and thought of to the people out there, so that they might benefit from my learning, from my thoughts and feelings. If that is all I can do, then that is enough.

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