Demystification is a critical part of education

Written by Rick Henrikson on December 27th, 2010 Posted in Commentary, Personal, Society


I firmly believe that most anyone can be taught most anything, if given the right resources.  I’ve stated before that the future of education will be very personal, and there have been a number of recent reports supporting this trend.  However, there’s still a key hurdle that we frequently underestimate: mist.

When I say mist I’m referring specifically to the foggy notions that lead someone to believe a concept or activity is beyond them.  This unfamiliarity with a topic obscures one’s motivation and ability to even begin tackling it.  You become paralyzed by a debilitating lack of confidence that is all too often instigated by those who are best positioned to alleviate it.

Of course, many people likely throw up intellectual barriers simply to boost their egos.  When I use big words that you don’t understand, I point out how much smarter I am.  Math is hard.  This machine looks complicated.  You can’t wiggle a stick around in just the right way to get a manual car to move properly, that takes years of experience*.  Too many people throw up verbal barriers around the knowledge they’ve gained, as though they had to protect it in some sort of zero sum knowledge game.  But knowledge isn’t scarce.  There’s plenty to go around, and it should be shared as freely and openly and empathetically as possible.

While I’d hope my personal encounters with this phenomenon have been isolated incidents (the ivory tower seems to breed mist-makers), it’s unfortunately a pervasive annoyance.  There are mechanics, doctors, politicians, and pretty much any kind of superior with fiscal or egotistical motivations.  Mist is basically the tag line for Apple.  Users can’t do anything to modify or upgrade their iCrap on their own.  Kids are taught that they need a certified “Genius” just to help them change their batteries.  Little boxes of circuits are “magic”.  No, Mr. Jobs, they aren’t magic.  Dragons are magic.  Those are just well-understood tangles of wires.  And mystifying them is bad for America.  If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.  You won’t always find me singing the praises of Microsoft, but it’s interesting to compare them with Apple in this respect.  Windows-powered PCs seem built for modding and tweaking.  In fact, Windows 7 was even my idea.  The difference between these two approaches to customer respect is pretty glaring</rant>.

Clearing the Mist

Fortunately, there seem to be a number of anti-mist movements gaining momentum recently.  Wikipedia brought a vast expanse of knowledge to everyone’s fingertips.  Now you could find some ground when bullshitters tried to pull it out from under you.  A long line of cheap or open source textbooks and video lectures promise to bring even richer learning experiences to everyone (although these both fall short of the ideal education system of the future).  JOVE and Instructables have also built themselves on the idea of opening up knowledge in a more visual way.  Aardvark and Quora have built businesses on providing users with immediate access to expertise, allowing you to bypass information-hiders with murky motives.

These kinds of tools, largely enabled by the internet, have helped accelerate a number of do-it-yourself (DIY) movements, including one of my personal favorites, DIYBio.  It’s important for these initiatives to engage in early education and outreach to remove barriers for kids.  They can do science.  They can build a radio.  They can replace their own batteries.  I definitely wish I had been exposed to more hands-on work at a younger age.  I’ve seen this become an issue with many grown-up people who are constantly held back just because certain topics or tasks are a little bit mystical to them.  In fact, I bet 80% of inaction could be overcome with some simple demystification.  And that’s part of what this blog is all about.


*Ok, maybe that was part of the impetus for this post.  Some people told me driving stick would be too hard and I couldn’t master it in a week, let alone 15 minutes.  I showed them.  And I did it driving on the wrong side of the road!  Take that, mist!

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