What we know about ‘knowledge’

There’s an ongoing flamewar between traditionalists and progressives, who believe that education should either be about ‘knowledge’ or about ‘skills’. This has been going on, in various forms, at least since Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold squared off in the 19th century about what kind of education is required to foster ‘true culture’.

As Bruce Chatwin demonstrates in his modern-day classic The Songlines, there are ways of knowing that are based on action rather than ‘head knowledge’. He details how Australian aboriginal ‘knowledge’ is interwoven with their physical environment, is passed on primarily in an oral way, and comes with certain prohibitions as to who is allowed to ‘have’ such knowledge.

The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy’s entry on knowledge lists four main types:

  1. Knowing by acquaintance
  2. Knowledge ‘that’
  3. Knowledge ‘wh’ (i.e. whether, who, what, why)
  4. Knowing ‘how’

I’ve always been of the opinion that the the second type of knowledge listed here, knowledge ‘that’, is of limited value. If I was coming up with my own personal hierarchy of the relative importance of these kinds of knowledge, I’d put this one at the bottom. It’s the kind of knowledge that may be foundational, but taken to absurd lengths, just means you’re good at pub quizzes.

For me, it’s knowing ‘how’ that’s of central importance, and what we should focus on in education. From the IEP’s entry on knowledge, citing the celebrate ‘ordinary language’ philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

What Ryle meant by ‘knowing how’ was one’s knowing how to do something: knowing how to read the time on a clock, knowing how to call a friend, knowing how to cook a particular meal, and so forth. These seem to be skills or at least abilities.

This is why I think that ‘knowledge’ vs. ‘skills’ is a false dichotomy. The article continues:

Are they not simply another form of knowledge-that? Ryle argued for their distinctness from knowledge-that; and often knowledge-how is termed ‘practical knowledge’. Is one’s knowing how to cook a particular meal really only one’s knowing a lot of truths — having much knowledge-that — bearing upon ingredients, combinations, timing, and the like?

Going back to the aboriginal example, this is where ‘knowledge’ that can’t be tested using a pencil-and-paper examination comes in. Knowing ‘how’ is usually described as a set of ‘skills’ in our culture, labelled as ‘vocational’, and given a back seat to the ‘more important’, ‘academic’ forms of knowledge. I think this is incorrect and should be remedied as soon as possible.

If Ryle was right, knowing-how is somehow distinct: even if it involves having relevant knowledge-that, it is also something more — so that what makes it knowledge-how need not be knowledge-that… Might knowledge-that even be a kind of knowledge-how itself, so that all instances of knowledge-that themselves are skills or abilities?

While reading to my six year-old daughter last night, the word ‘instinctively’ was used by the author. We had a brief conversation about it, which revealed that, even at her young age, she understands the difference between the knowledge ‘that’ which is acceptable at school, versus the knowing ‘how’ which is valuable currency at home. In other words, she’s playing the game.