You Outta Know: The Difference between Facts & Conversations

With this post, we come to the end of the series I’ve written on essential tools for graduate school that should be taught in a solid undergraduate education and I have saved the most esoteric–and controversial–for last.  The previous posts have circled around best practices for reading, interpreting, and utilizing created artifacts/texts and have served to bring out at least one major distinction in the ways people interpret and use texts.  This post has less to do with how texts should be read and used and more to do with the goal of using texts.  As such, it is less prescriptive and more descriptive of the approach that I feel is most beneficial when framing one’s educational goals.  So, having thrown up enough hedges to make a damn fine hedge maze, let’s consider the difference between facts and conversations.

First, definitions: by “facts” I mean isolated bits of data abstracted out of space, time, and–sometimes–narrative.  Facts are often very simple relationships between two objects or ideas–like Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492 or the boiling point of mercury is 629.88 degrees Kelvin.  Now, obviously, such facts are only really useful in much more complex clusters–Columbus was a Spanish nobleman whose voyages facilitated the first lasting European contact with the Americas and inaugurated a general colonial movement to establish outposts on and gain control over foreign lands.  While one can argue that Columbus was or was not really a member of the ranking aristocracy–he was born into a merchant class and only married into nobility–or that Columbus’s discovery only coincided with a larger movement to expand the influence of European power–the techniques and institutions of medieval colonial expansion existed long before the New World was discovered as attested to by the fact that Columbus was able to secure financing and import Spanish rule to the lands he discovered–these are still statements of “fact” in that they attempt to embody fixed and controllable descriptions of reality. (That they are true in some objective sense is implied, but is not necessary to the distinction that I am attempting to outline).

By “conversation,” I mean the academic milieu that debates connection, assigns significance, and creates historical narrative.  Unlike “facts,” statements describing conversation are necessarily situated within a certain historiography or tradition which is as important–or more important–than the facts that are being discussed.  So, an example of a conversation might include Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s excellent monograph which seeks to situate Columbus’s voyage within a much larger and older tradition of Spanish colonial expansion that challenges the notion that Columbus’s discovery created a European hunger for expansion.  As this example demonstrates, conversations are conducted with facts–but where facts can be viewed as objective bites of truth, conversations necessarily acknowledge subjectivity and both interrelated and contested truth claims.

So what is the practical difference in aiming one’s education at amassing facts and aiming at entering conversations?  For academic purposes, facts are only facts because they have become boring.  That is, facts are the particulate that settles on the bottom of the test tube after the–often violent–chemical reactions of scholarly debate have already been exhausted.  One cannot do the work of an academic if she sets as her goal merely the collection and mastery of facts.  Yet, so much of the educational process begun at birth, continued through primary and secondary schools, and celebrated in undergraduate education is concerned merely with the collection of facts.  This shift toward conversation and away from fact acquisition is often characterized as “higher level thinking,” but that seems to imply that one gains this sort of knowledge by employing the traditional methods of thinking–which have been characterized by the collection and rearrangement of  abstracted data–with greater depth or higher (more abstract) levels.  Pedagogically, I think it is preferable to think of entering conversations as a shift in aim rather than merely a difference in intellectual vigor.

An undergraduate education should work to differentiate between facts and conversations while facilitating the shift by asking students to understand key theories, thinkers, and paradigms in the terms of historical dialogues.  This goes beyond the shift from multiple choice fact recall to critical thinking essay questions, it demands that a-temporal and a-historical relationships be situated in the academic frames that created them.  Such a move automatically makes facts more interesting–as they become the battlegrounds of intellectual confrontation–and renders them more useful–as the nature of the academy is constructing theories rather than discovering facts.  (This does not make me a constructivist–I’m just arguing the practical nature of academic progress).  Furthermore, if this skill is gained in the undergraduate phase, students are better grounded in the ways of thinking that are necessary for making contributions to the academy freeing up more specialized professors to focus on evermore diverse and abstruse conversations rather than trying to cajole students into turning away from their fact-wheelbarrow-filling.

Much more could be said with regard to modern, postmodern, mostmodern allegiances and affinites that seem to typify these two approaches, but this post is already too heavy and bloated.  The take-away from this post is: growing up in one’s education means reading the book first, but then asking who wrote it, who disagreed with it, and how it came to be published.

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