In a famous piece titled On viewing rhetoric as epistemic, Robert Scott writes:
The attractiveness of the analytic ideal, ordinarily only dimly grasped but nonetheless active in the rhetoric of those who deem truth as prior and enabling, lies in the smuggling of the sense of certainty into human affairs
This is one of my favorite papers ever written on communication or on rhetoric; but that's beside the point. The point is about smuggling certainty into human affairs.
A lot of times we drag certainty in in the metaphors we use. What do we liken our lives to? A road. A path. Our lives do indeed have a beginning and end; but that's where the likeness ends. Our lives are not linear; nor are they marked clearly so one know where to proceed next. Maybe an old 2D arcade game is a more realistic metaphor - dodging enemies all the time, not knowing what's coming next, things getting nastier over time, getting slaughtered every now and then. Except of course you can't reload the game in real life (that's where this metaphor ends, too - they all do).
Some scientists somewhere once asked people if they see their lives as similar to a game of cards or a game of chess. Most picked chess, quite mistakenly. When was the last time you knew the location of all your opponents pieces? Even the game of cards analogy is overly optimistic: at least in cards a jack is a jack and is always below a queen. Real life is even more random.
Which finally brings me to my point: we have bad metaphors for education, too. We think of it as a building. Getting bigger and prettier over time. Growing from a foundation. Orderly with a top to bottom hierarchy - simple facts at the bottom, differential calculus at the top.
I don't feel like my education is like that. The foundation has crumbled away. What I learned when I was ten I could not recall now - at least no more than 10% of it. I used to be fluent in Spanish. I used to know trigonometry. I used to be able to write in hiragana. No more.
And yet I am surprisingly comfortable with my current level of knowledge. I think of myself as an icebreaker - ploughing through the unknown, with enough power to crunch through any problem, one at a time. Loose ice stays loose in my path for a while, then freezes over again. Over time, I gain skill in navigation, a knowledge of the terrain, and maybe even a more powerful engine to run faster and through thicker ice. But I know I will never crush all the ice. The goal is to never be locked in it, not to crush it all.
The icebreaker metaphor lets you forget without feeling guilty. Just keep moving and don't let the water freeze around you, and the rest will take care of itself.
Published on the old blog on June 22, 2009