The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach
Published in March of 2017.
How would you distill your professional mission in life?
Here is what I’d say:
My mission is to work with other educators to advance learning in the liberal arts.
Notice that my professional mission statement says nothing about how I actually try to accomplish these goals. Nothing about online education. Nothing about educational technology. And nothing about postsecondary leadership, scholarship, or organizational change.
Rather, my professional mission statement concentrates only on the two areas that I care about most – the advancement of learning and the power of a liberal arts education.
The reason that I share my mission with you is that it is really not my mission. If you read the wonderful book The Knowledge Illusion, you will discover that our thinking is fully embedded within our communities.
Our knowledge – and by extension our goals (or even our individual missions – are products of a dense web of social interactions and connections.
The idea that knowledge is distributed, networked, interconnected, and built constructed through thinking and writing and communications of many individuals over a long period of time would not come as any surprise to academics. An academic discipline is, at its core, a conversation. This conversation is enabled by a common understanding of the major theoretical frameworks, findings (literature), and methods within the discipline.
For those of us in the emerging discipline at the intersection of learning, technology, and organizational change – The Knowledge Illusion serves as a helpful reminder that our work is intrinsically networked. We need to share information with each other to figure out what we think and what we know.
For every alternative academic – no matter what the alt-ac specialization – The Knowledge Illusion indicates that it may be time to move beyond the idea that we gather at conference for “professional development”. Rather, alt-acs need to gather and convene to build knowledge and create a shared sense of identity.
While The Knowledge Illusion was written by a couple of academics, the point of the book is not to unpack academic understanding. Sloman and Fernbach want to answer bigger questions about what we know, how we know it, and why we often know less than we think we do.
The authors use the example of the zipper and the toilet. We think we know how these technologies work, but very few of us could describe in-depth how both of these technologies actually function. (Can you?). We don’t know how zippers and toilets work because mostly we don’t need to know. We rely on other minds to know how to make and fix these things.
If we don’t really understand zippers and toilets, imagine how little we know about all the other technologies that we depend on. In fact, the core technologies that we depend on for modern life – everything from airplanes to power plants to digital platforms – are so complex that no single individuals understand all their workings. Knowledge is distributed.
Sloman and Fernbach also concern themselves with why we are likely to make bad decisions. Most of what we think we know is really our acceptance of the knowledge of the people in our network. We don’t make decisions based on facts, but rather on how we interpret information from the people in which we interact. Given a choice between “objective facts” and our community, we will align our thinking with those that we know (and read and listen to) almost every time. Any doubt about the primacy of connections over facts should be put to rest by any number of current political and policy debates – from climate change to health care legislation.
So yes, The Knowledge Illusion can be read as a much broader analysis of how we think.
I choose to read The Knowledge Illusion as a manifesto for our alt-ac community.
The Knowledge Illusion is a terrific explanation and defense of the salience of academic disciplines. It is perhaps time to accept that if we are going to make progress in influencing postsecondary change (both at our institutions and within the larger higher ed ecosystem) that us alt-acs will need to actively work towards coalescing our main questions, findings, and methods into a recognizable academic discipline.
After all, we alt-acs never think alone.
What are you reading?