Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wissenschaft and Kenntnis

Leonard Sax, MD, in his book Boys Adrift discusses the two kinds of knowledge, which we unfortunately don’t address more easily in the English language. In German, something you have actually experienced is kenntnis from kenen, “to know by experience.” Knowledge from books is wissenschaft from wissen, “to know about something”. Other European languages have their own words to express the same concept, that knowledge comes in two forms, one direct from personal experience, and the other, second hand, explained or imparted by others. As stated by Dr. Sax,
“There is a fundamental belief running through all European pedagogy that both wissenschaft and kenntnis are valuable, and that the two ways of knowing must be balanced.”
Our current model of education in the US, however is to impart wissenschaft, without kenntnis. This is in large part I suspect due to the current emphasis on testing. We can offer information, (second hand, of course) and then test to see that the student can repeat or remember what we have offered. So it makes education cheap. We don’t have to provide any sort of real experience at all. But in failing to provide experience, we cheapen the experience so that it actually has little value to those students, particularly boys, who are left wondering at that back of the class, "What the f___ am I doing here?"

Testing for knowledge gained from real experience is a much larger challenge. How can we test for real skills? It requires people with real experience to do so, and kenntnis is much harder to measure. In a society of anxiety, overly concerned with measurable success, those things that are easiest to measure become the predominant concerns.

Now one of the only skills that parents and children and teachers are most concerned about is the skill of taking tests. They have found that like other human processes, practice is required to gain the best results, and the test scores have become more important than the knowledge gained, as the scores themselves and not the learning they represent are important for opening doors to college.

What is the proper balance between kenntnis and wissenschaft? Experiential knowledge and second hand shared knowledge? Remember in the writings of Otto Salomon and other early educators, the relationship between the concrete and the abstract? As stated by Salomon, education should move from the concrete to the abstract. Pestalozzi, Froebel, and others including Salomon believed that we should start in learning with the concrete allowing investigation. For Froebel, that was accomplished through the introduction of "gifts," objects whose qualities were to be investigated in the classroom. For Salomon, Froebel's investigations of form and material were to be continued at the upper levels through the use of woodworking as a tool in general education providing direct hands on experience of tools and materials, the essence of kenntnis. Wissenschaft is knowledge shared but also offered up for comparison and criticism. We evaluate what we are told in comparison to the experiential knowledge gained from our own investigations. If we look at the international scientific community, and all the benefits of modern technology, we see the benefits of that balance. But when education lacks the fundamental concrete investigation that provides a framework for the evaluation of abstract or second hand knowledge, society is placed in peril, at risk to manipulation by demagogues.

Lacking kenntnis, these days we pick and choose what to believe based on conformity to the manipulations and machinations of others rather than on comparison to a foundation of self-discovered truth and confidence of our own investigation. Sounds like the perfect formula for delusion. And if you are following internet media these days, you will see plenty of examples.


  1. Anonymous1:12 AM

    If all you've ever known is cheap particle-board furniture, you can't even imagine what quality furniture looks and feels like. If (as a society) all we've known is cheap (and second-hand) education ourselves, how hard might it be to imagine a better way?

    One key is to ask how much we're willing to invest in the education of other people's children. Are we willing to provide them with enduring, solid foundations (teachers with kenntnis don't come cheap), or are we content with funding particle-board education?

  2. It is such a small world. Is there such a thing as other people's children. I have a daughter. Does that mean I don't need to be concerned with the education of other people's sons? The crisis affecting the education of young men means that my daughter in choosing a mate will have to sort through those whose minds and behaviors have been disturbed by video gaming, insensitivity to their educational needs, etc. Are any children not my own when in the long term their well being is the well being of my descendants?

    The needed change in education is monumental.

  3. Hi Doug, I came to this particular article of yours referred by a dad at a local school who is hoping they can bring Dr. Sax in to speak to the parents and children about social media. I was so proud to say that I knew you!

    My comment regarding your post here is: WOW! How could you possibly have anticipated in 2009 the demagoguery which in a decade would be unleashed from politicians and media!?? AND: your prediction that many among us would be unprepared by their education to discriminate fact from fake!