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Who Owns What We Own?

We Do (If We Are Thoughtful about it)
ooo By Dr. John Meyer, Professor, OISE. ooo

A Discussion Paper for the Monarch Institute, March 10, 2004 John Myers
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

"The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of mere gain."
Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago

"The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information, by throwing in the reader's way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber, peradventure interspersed." Edgar Allan Poe 150 years ago

It has been said that the trouble with the Sunday New York Times is that it takes all day to read it.

Richard Saul Wurman, explained this "information explosion" 15 years ago as follows:: ?A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England." (1989, 32)

"More new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day, and the total of all printed knowledge doubles every eight years." (op. cit. 35)

Imagine the information produced since then in this age of the internet in addition to what are packed into the above quotations.

We are overfed with information yet starved for knowledge. When the gap between what we understand and what we think we should know, between data and knowledge, when the information we have does not tell us what we want or need to know, we have information anxiety.

Data is not knowledge. Individuals achieve knowledge by using their own experience, distinguishing the important from the irrelevant and making critical value judgments.

In the work teachers, doctors, auto mechanics, and sales people do in "keeping up"- to new information, new products, new technologies, new TV shows, new music, new everything and anything, we are in danger of getting lost.

Owning Language

One of the themes of this institute suggests that some institutions use new information, often in the form of jargon, to bamboozle the rest of us.

In "1984" George Orwell introduced us to the words doublethink and newspeak. A word he DIDN'T use - but which combines the two - is doublespeak.

Doublespeak is saying one thing and meaning another, usually its opposite.

For example, in Orwell's famous novel, 1984, when BIG BROTHER and the Party say PEACE they mean WAR, when they say LOVE they mean HATE, and when they say FREEDOM they mean SLAVERY.

All organizations, including democratic governments are capable of using doublespeak. Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes deliberate. The Nazi regime was good at this and they like the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin perfected the "big lie".

In his closing address at Nuremberg, US prosecutor Robert Jackson said: "Nor is the lie direct the only means of falsehood. They [the Defendants] all speak with a Nazi double talk with which to deceive the unwary. In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms "final solution" of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination "special treatment" of prisoners of war meant killing; "protective custody" meant concentration camp; "duty labor" meant slave labor; and an order to "take a firm attitude" or "take positive measures" meant to act with unrestrained savagery."

Unfortunately the use of doublespeak is still widespread. The war in Vietnam produced such doublespeak expressions as: Collateral damage (killing innocent civilians) Removal with extreme prejudice (assassination) Energetic disassembly (nuclear explosion) Limited duration protective reaction air strikes (bombing villages in Vietnam) Incontinent ordnance (bombs which hit schools and hospitals by mistake) Active defence (invasion).

Here is a recent Canadian example. I shall not speculate on the motives.

"We do not want to become a police state. We do not want to transgress on peoples' liberties." Canada's Minister of Transport announcing thumb & iris scans as part of recent legislation for increasing security at airports in the light of the events of 9 / 11 last year.

Doublespeak and jargon are only part of the information glut obscuring real knowledge and understanding. Think about
o commercials
o music videos that some say rob us of imagination when we listen to our favorite music by providing images for us
o the confusion of data in a textbook with the "truth" about history, science, or any other subject
o how reporting on the greatness of hockey obscures in the view of many issues that threaten to ruin the game
If I am in danger of becoming a mindless puppet! What can I do to break the strings?

One place to start is to learn how to ask good questions Questions allow us to make sense of their worlds and to take action They are the most powerful tools we have for making decisions and solving problems - for inventing, changing and improving our lives as well as the lives of others.

Socrates argued that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we begin by recognizing what we do not know then asking questions to find out.

Important questions touch our hearts and souls. They are central to our lives. Such questions are always part of the human condition. Understanding comes from constant probing of these essential questions. We can't do it all. Those of us who teach can only show students the tips of the icebergs. In The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand, Gardner has three icebergs representing his curriculum: the true, the beautiful and the good. "What is true?" "What is beautiful?" "What is good?"

Other essential questions we ask throughout our lives include:
o Who am I?
o Are we really free?
o Where does perception end and reality begin?
o Is it better to live with the question or the wrong answer?
o What is progress?
o Can a virtue be a vice?
o What are my rights in a democratic society?
o Do the ends ever justify the means?
o Should the collective good ever take precedence over individual rights?
o What do I owe the rest of the world?
o Why does _____ matter?
o What does it mean to be a good friend?
o What kind of friend shall I be?
In teaching about World Wars One and Two to my students we ask, among other things
o Why do we have to fight wars?
o Do we have to fight wars?
o Who showed greater bravery and courage, the front line soldiers and the nurses who tended to the wounded and dying or the leaders of the war effort?
o Should there be a law against war profiteering?
o What do we today owe to those of past generations who fought on our behalf?
Another way of looking at important questions is as follows (McKenzie, 2002):
1. Why? Questions "Why do things happen the way they do?"
This question requires analysis of cause-and-effect relationships and leads to problem-solving (the How question) or to decision-making (the Which is best? question.)

"Why?" is the favorite question of four-year-olds.
It is the basic tool for figuring stuff out.

"Why does the sun fall each day?"
"Why does the rain fall?"
"Why do some people throw garbage out their car windows?"
"Why do some people steal?"
"Why do some people treat their children badly?"
"Why can't I ask more questions in school?"


2. How? Questions "How could things be made better?"
This question is the basis for problem-solving and pulling things together.

"How?" is the tool that fixes the broken furnace and changes the way we get cash from a bank.

"How?" inspires the software folks to keep sending us upgrades and hardware folks to create faster computer chips.

"How?" is the question that enables the suitor to capture his or her lover's heart.

"How?" is the reformer's passion and the hero's faith.

3. Which? Questions "Which do I select?"
This question requires thoughtful decision-making - a reasoned choice based upon explicit (clearly stated) criteria and evidence.

"Which?" is the most important question of all because it determines who we become.

"Which school or trade will I pick for myself?"

Faced with a moral dilemma, "Which path will I follow?"

Confronted by a serious illness, "Which treatment will I choose for myself?"
What's Next
To own what you know you have to know yourself and what is important for you. The important answers in your life will depend on the important questions you ask. Remember Socrates.


You may also contact me directly at martin@aller-stead.com

McKenzie, J. (2002). Questioning as Technology. Orbit. 32 (40. 35-39)

Gardner, H. (1999) The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand. New York: Simon & Schuster

Wurman, R.S. (1989). Information Anxiety. New York: Doubleday. This book has been recently updated to take into account the internet.

An additional resource to help to think for yourself is the Educational Technology Journal found at www. FNO.org