Novel Ways of Carving Up Knowledge

Normally we divide up the elements of knowledge into the traditional categories of history, literature, math, physics, chemistry, psychology, fine arts, and so forth. We are so used to these divisions that it may not even occur to us that knowledge can be split in plenty of other ways. But imagine, for instance, a school that offered the following subjects:

  • Making Observations
  • Formulating Theories
  • Making Predictions
  • Testing Predictions
  • Developing Happiness

Making Observations could include exercises where students make and record observations about the physical world, biological world, social world, political world, cultural world, etc. The tools students would learn about and employ could include stop watches and rocks to study how gravity works, telescopes to study the stars, microscopes to analyze blood, newspapers to study the government, and televisions to examine culture. Students would learn to operate these tools, pay attention, record, summarize, categorize, explain and simplify.

In Formulating Theories, students could learn about equations, probability, data, evidence, induction and deduction. They could study how various physical, psychological, economic, literary, musical and artistic theories arose. And they could be asked to develop their own theories about art, literature, culture, physical phenomena, psychological facts, and so on.

The subject Making Predictions would involve the study of many of the powerful theories from physics, economics, chemistry, and psychology, and students would learn to use each of these theories to make predictions about what one should expect to see.

In the study of Testing Predictions, students could learn about the scientific method, falsification, statistics, markets, computer prediction algorithms, the prediction algorithms of the brain, and randomized controlled trials. They could also learn how to do thorough research in order to be able confirm or disconfirm their future predictions based on knowledge gathered by others.

For Cultivating Happiness, there would be an emphasis on art appreciation, literature appreciation, food criticism, movie criticism, creative writing, art creation, meditation, exercise, health, positive psychology, cognitive therapy, etc. all directed towards learning how to increase pleasure, enjoyment and fulfillment as well as reduce misery. This could also involve a study of what makes humans happy and what makes them unhappy, which could lead to discussions of governmental systems, psychology, sociology, ethics, history, etc.

New ways of carving up knowledge can give us new ways of thinking about education.

5 thoughts on “Novel Ways of Carving Up Knowledge

  1. We are going to be such good friends.

    Yes! While it has certainly proved useful to split the world of knowledge into categories with decent, though fuzzy, boundaries up until now (chemistry, political science, anthropology), they have also begun to accumulate a great deal of baggage in terms of being dubbed soft or hard, scientific or humanities, liberal or conservative, when all knowledge accumulation should be equally rigorous, even if all knowledge is not equally accessible. It has always astounded me that people consider themselves more interested in biology than physics or anthropology than sociology when it appears that they rely on extremely similar strategies and approaches. Can the content really matter so much? Data is easy; knowing what to do with it is hard.

    The question is, if I may be practical for the moment, whether these meta-techniques can actually be taught in any productive manner without an enormous amount of differentiated content learning that the meta-learning can act on. Is it helpful to learn how to create theories if you don’t know the basics of biology? Does that count as observation if its already been observed? We can’t recreate everything other people have figured out; that’s the point of human knowledge. Is there any way to teach all of that without the divisions we have in place?

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      Almost all the facts that we learn in school we then forget. So, except for the really important facts (which it makes sense to hammer into us), I think it is reasonable to use the other facts presented mainly as an aid to help us understand important concepts and learn important skills.

  2. Ames says:

    Love it, Spencer — interesting idea as always.

  3. Michael Vassar says:

    This makes sense except that the topics proposed are pretty clearly more abstract than the typical subjects, and most people don’t engage with abstractions as well as you do.

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Thanks for the comment. I definitely didn’t intend this as a proposed complete curriculum, but rather, as thoughts on just one possible way that knowledge could be carved up besides the standard one. Making it into something that could be taught effectively would surely require a lot more work.

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