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News Archives - 2011

Information is not knowledge

September 5, 2011

PIcture of Tim PippertThe following is an excerpt from Sociology professor Tim Pippert's opening convocation address to students, titled "Information is not knowledge."

As a sociologist, I am fascinated by social change and lately I have been drawn to the transformations that are taking place in the areas of education and the use of technology.

Because I am interested in how society is adapting to the explosion of internet-based technology, I found this talk very easy to write. I asked myself, "Why not use the available technologies?" I simply Googled "opening college speech" and immediately had hundreds to work with.

After finishing my "research" on Google, all I had to do was put it together. The formula for this type of address is pretty simple.

-- Start with a welcome. Check.
-- Throw in a joke or two.
-- Tell you a deep and moving story.
-- And end with some advice for your success.

After 20 min. of skimming some of the speeches, there was no real need to actually read them carefully. I cut and pasted a few things from various opening convocation addresses.

Because Augsburg's location in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood helps define our identity, I pulled a few paragraphs on neighborhood policy from an opening address given at the University of Europe in Warsaw, Poland.

To lighten things up, I found a great connection between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to community development in an address to incoming students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

And I found some great words of wisdom on college success from an opening convocation at West Virginia University. I then looked up a few jokes, added a personal story, changed "West Virginia" to "Augsburg" and I was done in about an hour.

Unfortunately, I didn't even need to spend an hour on this because at the end of my "research," I stumbled on The site promised "welcome back to college speeches" suitable for any college official for only $19.95 that could be downloaded in 60 seconds.

With all this information available at the click of my mouse, I could have easily created an opening convocation speech that brought in neighborhood policy, referenced popular literature, and hopefully would have inspired you.

But it isn't really about being able to download speeches. It is about being able to pull up Census data for the Cedar Riverside neighborhood or your hometown, to check the monthly measures of job creation, to track legislation through Congress, and to be able to read newspapers from around the globe.

With instant access to so much information, we really should have something to show for it, shouldn't we? Many of us are carrying the 1970s and 1980s equivalent of a backpack filled with an entire volume of encyclopedias in our pocket. Actually scratch that image. Instead of thinking about carrying around encyclopedias, picture having an entire library and research lab on every campus computer or with you right now if you have a smart phone or iPad.

Being so wired is amazing but what I am arguing today is that for all the information we can easily acquire, we have little increased knowledge to show for it.

Let's go back to how I began our conversation. If I had actually prepared my speech by cutting and pasting quotes from the web, it would have given you some information but it certainly wouldn't have come from my base of knowledge. It would have been the words, inspirations, and beliefs of others, but I want today to be about you and me and the shared experiences of being in THIS space and in THIS time.

...In this moment I don't want to just deliver some information, but to begin working toward a basis of shared knowledge. That is why we are here, on campus and heading into classrooms tomorrow, to explore the world together. We are here to build a shared knowledge.

In his examination of reform in American Universities, Louis Menand argues that:

"Knowledge is our most important business. ...The pursuit, production, dissemination, application, and preservation of knowledge are central activities of a civilization. Knowledge is a social memory, a connection to the past...and it is social investment in the future. The ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans. It is how we reproduce ourselves as social beings and how we change..."

And so when I distinguish between information and knowledge, I am really talking about the passive act of quickly looking something up versus exploring, discussing, and experiencing something. While this can be done through web pages and social networking sites, I would argue that in most cases it can be done more effectively and with greater fulfillment as a face-to-face endeavor.

Long before Google and Facebook hit the scene, George Herbert Mead, a sociologist, psychologist, and philosopher writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s argued that our mind is a product of social interaction. Each individual is continually involved in a succession of joint enterprises with others, which form and shape their mind. As such to know something is to share something, to have knowledge is to be part of a collective experience.

Augsburg is here to provide you with that collective experience. At Augsburg you will be given chances to create knowledge in a community and through experiences designed to help you learn. This is the essence of an education steeped in the liberal arts.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, "a liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings."

That sounds great, but I prefer the way President Pribbenow defined it in a previous speech to the campus... a liberal arts education will prepare you to "Think, Act, and Give a Damn."

In order to get everything you can out of the education being offered to you, you need to be present. I am not talking about skipping class, but about being actively involved in your experiences here at Augsburg. And for all the great applications our new technologies have for enhancing our educations, sometimes being present might just mean turning off your smart phones, computers, and iPads when they interfere with your ability to experience learning with those around you.

...Joni Mitchell warned us about paving over paradise. I do not want to portray pre-smart phone campuses as "paradise" but I do believe our over-reliance on these technologies can have some negative consequences.

One of the outcomes of our reliance on technology is that we seem afraid to put them down. Many of us feel compelled to respond immediately to any text, call, or Facebook update regardless of the social or academic setting in which we are physically present.

For the last couple of years, I have noticed a change in what is going on when I walk into my first and second year classes. Five to ten years ago, after students had a chance to get to know each other, the classrooms I would walk into were loud and full of energy. Lately, even at mid-semester, there are very few conversations taking place between students when I enter the room. The silence is almost deafening. When I walk into my classrooms this week, I fully expect to see most students sitting quietly while texting or surfing the web.

Sitting quietly before class starts and texting a friend or a family member isn't a bad way to spend your time. It does, however, have consequences when it is the norm. When most students spend the time before every class on-line the in class conversations and debates suffer because we simply haven't taken the time or energy to get to know the person we are sitting next to.

The reaction you are feeling right now because of my words on texting is evidence that you and I likely view the same situation through different lenses. We view the world somewhat differently because we were raised in very different social and historical contexts.

I am not saying that all students are dependent on electronic gadgets and I certainly don't want you to get the idea that our faculty are afraid of technology. You will be amazed at the creative uses of technology employed at Augsburg, but it does matter that we experienced our educational training at different times in history.

Because we have not been wired for our entire lives, internet-based technologies are not always the first tool we turn to when trying to answer a question, accomplish a task, or foster our relationships.

You, however, are what Ron Nief, one of the authors of the description of first-year students published by Beloit College each fall refers to as the "Internet Class." According to Neif, you are "the symbolic generational start of a revolutionary adjustment in the systems and processes on which so much of society is built today."

In contrast, Bruce Krajewski, a professor of English at Texas Woman's University, wrote a counter piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education reminding incoming students what they might experience when coming into contact with professors born before 1980.

My favorite statement made by Professor Krajewski was that the people to my left first used the words "I phone" as a verb, as in "I will phone, or I have phoned, " and so on.

To be clear, my discussion of the use of new technologies does not come with a dichotomy of good and evil. There is no good or bad internet, but as a sociologist I understand that the differing social contexts in which you and I were raised contribute to altered interpretations of the same technologies.

Given that we have different lenses through which we see the world, I would argue that people like me must learn from you about the wonders of always being able to access information at a moment's notice. You have the opportunity to demonstrate to me that you have your pulse on the world in a way that I never thought possible when I was 18 years old.

Use the information that is at your fingertips to engage others, to start a conversation, to share in the experience of gaining knowledge. Bring that up-to-date information into your classrooms.

When I am talking about census data, show me that you are even more knowledgeable than I am at using demographic mapping software. Show me how social networking can be used for social change as it continues to do so in the Arab Spring. Or show me again how our community can be mobilized like it was last September. The way Sr. sociology major Taylor Foster used Facebook to organize the entire campus in solidarity against anti-gay violence and vandalism.

And in exchange for helping me understand the power of these technologies, I ask that you do two things: First, don't sit idly by and wait for the world to change into one where our dependence on technology makes it increasingly difficult to foster relationships with your classmates. Remember. To have knowledge is to be part of a collective experience.

And finally, understand that having access to information does not immediately lead to knowledge because it matters what you do with it and at Augsburg we want you to "Think, Act, and Give a Damn."

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