SPidge Tales

Monday, May 29, 2006

How Do We Know What We Know?

How do we know what we know?

As a teacher, I often think about what it is that my goal should be. Am I to be the imparter of knowledge upon young minds? Or, am I to help them to figure things out for themselves? Is learning a case of passing on knowledge from one person to another? Is it a gradual awakening of what is already inside of each of us? I think it is a combination of both, with some things being such that they need to be figured out by each person for himself, and other’s being that which needs to be told.

Okay, brief interlude. Yeah, I am doing that annoying writing trick that most writers do. They point out two sides, two “extremes”, on an issue, one side usually being the token conservative view, the other being the token liberal view. Then, the writer claims that either he is going to stay in the middle, find a middle ground, or go “beyond liberal and conservative.” Fr. Neuhaus from First Things magazine (http://www.firstthings.com/) even has a definition for “beyondists.” A “beyondist” is “one of those thinkers who claim their positions are beyond liberal and conservative but reliably end up being one or the other.” Well, whatever. I’m not a great writer and I know it. When I am good enough to write for a decent magazine or journal, I will fine-tune my writing. Then, when I get really good and am writing for the New Yorker, I will go back to being a beyondist again. Okay, interlude over.

One of the first ways we learn is through our senses. We touch a hot stove, feel that it is hot, then pull away. We bite into chocolate, notice that it is tasty, and want more. Other things, we learn from others. They had the experience, and told us about it. I’ve never seen a shark, but they sure do scare me because of the annual stories of the one of two unlucky surfers in the newspaper, plus silly movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea (I would pay money to see the tape of Samuel L. Jackson getting the script and finding out he, not LL Cool J, would be the token black guy killed off. That shark ate me!). How do I know that the earth goes around the sun, and not the other way around? And, how do I know that the stars are giant suns trillions of miles away, not just little specs of light taped to the dome in sky surrounding earth? Because, my science teachers told me. Just using my senses, there is no way I would not think the sun goes around the earth. We need to not look down upon people from the past as being simple minded. If it wasn’t for a few bright minds who were good at science, we would not know a lot of the scientific facts we do. And, the same in other subject areas such as history, grammar, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. I know what Paris looks like, I know about evolution, I even know about Jesus, because I have been told about, and have read about, these things from others. Yes, we should try to get people to think for themselves, and come to an understanding of the way things are on their own. But, no one is capable of figuring it all out by himself. We need to help others, sometimes even giving them the answer, and be willing to accept answers from others.

Some things, though, you may learn about and know a lot about, but never really come to a real understanding of, and know what they are really like, until you experience them. Things like love, and friendship, and loss, cannot be truly understood until they are experienced personally. Even some things more trivial need to be experienced. For me, it was my first home run. I started playing baseball when I was seven, and I always wanted to be a big league ballplayer. By the time I reached “majors” as an 11 year old, the big thing was hitting a homerun. If you hit one over the fence, you got to keep the ball, and I think get a hot dog from the concession stand. Some parents even gave their kids extra allowance for homering. A number of my friends hit homers, and no matter how much they told me what it felt like in school (Little League was all we talked about during the spring days when it was always a little too hot to be sitting in the classroom, and everyone was antsy for summer. Well, we talked about Little League and the few girls who were starting to grow boobs already. In hindsight, we should have stuck to talking Little League. The girls that would turn out the hottest in high school ended up being the ones who developed later anyways), I never could really understand the feeling. I never did hit that Little League homerun.

I developed into a really good baseball player in my early teens, as well as a real swell all-around guy (just kidding…I was always a really swell guy), but that first home run did not come until I was 16. It was a summer league game, at Watervliet High School field, with a deep fence in right field that was about 30 feet high. There had always been some fields with short fences that looked inviting, causing me to think, “today is the day to hit that first home run. I have hit balls farther than that in fields with unfortunately longer fences or no fences.” Of course, when you think about something too much and try too hard, it rarely happens. This game, the field was so big, that I never even thought home run. I just went out there, played, and had a good time. My first at bat, I smoked a line drive over the second baseman’s head for a single. In my final AB, I hit it really good. Not as good as the earlier single, but I got more lift on it. It kept sailing and sailing into right center. I couldn’t really tell where it landed, but the right fielder was looking at the fence. It had gone over and I rounded the bases. It was a nice feeling. I was close to second base when the umpire signaled “home run.” From that moment until I crossed home-plate, the focus would be on me. It was my day. I finally knew what it felt like to hit a home run. In centerfield the following inning, I hammed it up in warm-ups, catching the pop-ups we outfielders throw to each other with my bare-hand. Nothing had really changed in my life, but everything had changed. I was now a member of the club. I would hit four more homeruns in my life, all in high school varsity baseball (I was not allowed to hit in college when I was turned into a pitcher). And, each meant something. My one homer as a junior was a grand slam after the batter in front of me was intentionally walked. My first as a senior broke my beginning of the year slump. My second I hit during the first ever game I won as a pitcher. My last home run came in my final home game. But, that feeling I had after the first one can never be topped. It was unique. It may have felt similar with each successive homer, but it was always something I had felt before save the first.

There are other experiences like hitting a homerun that are like that. While the first time may not have been the best or most memorable, it will always be unique. Whether it is first homerun, first touchdown, first kiss, first love, first heartbreak, first time you ask someone out. Sometimes, it may not even be a happy memory. The first woman you ask out may have said no, the first kiss may have not happened the way you wanted it to or, in hindsight, with the right woman. But, they are all things that need to be experienced to know what they are like. Unlike facts such as the earth’s relationship to the sun, you cannot “learn” these life lessons in a book or by being told about them.

I even think true religion, or at the very least a true relationship with God, is like that. No matter how much church dogma and teachings you learn, no matter how true it may be, most of the great mystics and saints really came to understand their faith when they felt that something in their heart, when they felt God tugging at them.

I don’t know. I am now getting to the point of rambling. More on this subject later…


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home