Embracing Uncertainty

What else could certainty be, really, but the death of learning?

It’s time for another one of those Comansense articles.

So pop some popcorn, play some Pink Floyd, and strap in for the ride. We educators always talk about being and making “life-long learners.” Take a walk with me into what that really means.

We are born learners. We come into this world not understanding a thing about it, and we just soak up information like sponges trying to make sense of this crazy place. We use our senses, we use our hearts, we use the network of experiences we’ve had, to sort as many of this world’s random files into neat, organized folders in our minds.

Okay…

So as it turns out, we can’t actually experience the world as it is. What we can see is light bouncing off of things.  The images all around us are collections of un-absorbed wavelengths. Our eyes and brains convert all that to an understanding of the space around us… just… slightly in the past. (What?) Yeah, what we are seeing currently, in the present, is actually the world as it was fractions of a second ago, captured by the fastest mailman in the universe and carried to our eyeballs to process.

It’s quite miniscule.  But the fact remains: Everything we see with our eyes is in the past.  We cannot actually witness the present, because light has a quantifiable speed, and therefore takes quantifiable time to travel to us.  Sound waves are even slower. Plus, everything we learn through our senses has to travel through our networks of nerves to reach our brains. The present is all actually in the past.

Okay…

Now- as an educator, I know the main way we actually understanding new things is through scaffolding. That is, we understand new information by connecting it to what we already know.

Take a cassette tape.

1012_cassette

The students I teach right now would never know what the purpose of a cassette tape is, unless they have some sort of prior experience with one or they’d seen one in popular culture somewhere. Otherwise, they’d have no point of reference and therefore no way to know what it was designed for or how it works. Everything’s digital now.

As life-long learners, our individual experience absolutely informs how we interpret new information. Just as a cassette tape means nothing to you if you’ve never heard of a cassette player, a gay rights rally is going to seem odd to you if you’ve never had an experience that connects you to their message. There’s nothing wrong with that oddness.  It’s to be expected.  It’s the product of insufficient experience. And it works both ways: People reacting with hostility to a gay rights rally seems odd to me, because I lack the experiences that make that behavior make sense.

Not only that, but the world is constantly changing. People change. Places change. Say my wife tries a different hairstyle this morning after I’ve left for work.  I’m already wrong inside my head about what my own wife looks like. You see, by the time we think we’ve developed a fairly cohesive explanation for reality as we have perceived it, reality has already changed. *snap* Like *that.* Multiply that by all the efforts of all the people who are not in our fields of view at this moment.  Yep.  This basically means any understanding of how the world works that we come up with, based on what we’ve experienced, has already become obsolete as soon as we draft it.

Okay…

This is not good. This is a painful part of human existence.  We share in it together. We’re all flawed creatures struggling to understand.

The problem is, we only have our own points of view, our perspectives, our experiences. Literally everyone in the world has a different experience than we do ourselves, a different key to understanding the truth. We can only access the greater truth of this world by sharing in the experience of others.

spif_diversity2Certainty of our own opinions, therefore, is a roadblock to all that. It’s a roadblock to sharing; it’s a roadblock to growth; it’s a roadblock to life-long learning. A little built-in survival system called confirmation bias means we’re hardwired to seek out experiences that confirm what we already think.  We’ve gotta get away from that if we want to gain fresh perspectives. We’ve got to actively seek out people we don’t understand. That’s really, really hard! For EVERYBODY!

In my humble opinion, it behooves me then to just… listen. With just that slightest of shrugs. That maybe, maybe… I don’t know.  Maybe I’m actually wrong.

After the events in Baltimore, I wanted to write so badly… I had lots of thoughts.  But I had no unique perspective.  I’m a middle class white guy in Mississippi. I’ve never feared the police.  I’ve also never put on body armor to protect my city from violent people. I have no scaffolding that makes Baltimore make sense to me. Oh, I can imagine– I can fill in the blanks with the perspective of black colleagues of mine who share their eye-opening experiences with me regularly… I can fill in the blanks with the perspective of cops I know who have been in harm’s way… but the fact is, at the end of the day, I have never experienced anything like Baltimore, personally. So, no. I don’t really understand.

But just because I don’t understand other people’s experiences, it doesn’t mean they’re invalid.

So in order to understand the world better than we do now, maybe we should listen to the experience of others. Maybe we should trust the honesty of what they’ve been through.  Maybe we should respect people- all people, a little more.

That’s my take, anyway.

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