When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11
I lead a group of online peer-to-peer learning communities. That’s what I do (in case you ever wondered how I make a living when I’m not blogging). So, when I’m not challenging people to think on my blog, I’m doing it at work. So, yeah, in some sense, I actually am living the dream. Well… my dream, at least.
Anyhow, one of the objections that I hear to such a thing (since controversy seems to follow me like a lost puppy) is that peer-to-peer learning just isn’t as valuable as learning from an expert. And I hear that. I get it. That makes sense. Sort of. Actually, you know what? Maybe that used to make sense, but I honestly don’t think that it necessarily does anymore. Here’s what I mean:
In the ancient world, a large amount of information was relatively hard to come by. People didn’t have libraries in every town and hamlet. Most folks were illiterate. And only the very wealthy and well-connected could afford tutors or academies. Mostly, people learned from one another, from the folks in their immediate context. You know, friends and family and the like. In Jewish communities there developed a somewhat organized way of learning from one another that still sort of played fast and loose with the whole education thing, and they called it the havruta (where you pronounce the h like you’re choking on something). This method of learning was very prevalent during the Talmudic period (200-500 CE), and probably got its start in the Mishnaic era, around the time Jesus and his crew showed up on the scene. Essentially, this was where students of the Torah would pair off with a friend (haver) and analyze, question, or debate what they thought a section of the text meant.
Now, remember these are peers, equals. They are learning from each other. Sure, there was usually an overseeing rabbi somewhere in the vicinity. But his role was seldom to tell them what to think. In fact, one of the things the rabbi would do is listen in on conversations, and if he thought that it sounded like the students were agreeing too much, he would interject a bit of controversy into their discussion just to make them disagree and stir things up again. (As you can guess, I kind of like this part.)1
And that’s sort of how things went for awhile. Then, a few centuries ago, something changed.
Modernism and Authority
I’m sure you’re already pretty familiar with everything that happened in the Age of Enlightenment from your high school world history class (since none of us slept through that). So, I won’t belabor the thing. Suffice to say, however, that where we went to get our know-how shifted toward the knower as a source of authority. Now, seeing people as an authority figure, especially on a particular topic, wasn’t a new thing by any means. But, there was definitely a change in who we began attributing authority to. Instead of looking to the person with the big hat and the right office or title, we started looking for the most knowledgeable person.
I know that it gets over-quoted and all, but Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am,” really did epitomize the shift in our locus of knowledge to the individual knower.
So, at this point I should mention something about movements in thought. You see, “modernism” was the way of thinking that grew out of the Enlightenment. As a philosophy, modernism is big on evidence. The belief was that through science and reason we could build a utopia. But then, sometime within the last century or so, something changed. (I’m noticing a pattern. How ‘bout you?)
Postmodernism and the Age of Information
Enter postmodernism, that really difficult to define movement of thought that has something to do with cultural metanarratives, being trapped in a prison-house of language, and the weird art at Moe’s Tavern. Whatever we may make of it, postmodernism has created a shift in Western society. We think less in terms of hierarchy, and more in terms of equality. We are less interested in centralized sources of authority, like the New York Times and the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and more interested in participating in decentralized networks, like blogs and Wikipedia. We no longer assume that better science can bring us a better tomorrow. Inventions such as the atomic bomb have solidified a strong realization in our collective mind – modernism didn’t bring us a utopia; rather, it simply brought us more efficient ways of destroying ourselves and one another.
Nowadays, we are skeptical of someone who claims authority or special knowledge. And, to a large degree, rightly so. With the advent of the internet, information is no longer scarce. It’s everywhere. We are inundated with it. For those of us with a smart phone, we have access to virtually any piece of information that we could ever really want or need, whenever, and wherever we go. As others have already pointed out, in much more creative ways than I can, institutions and programs for education do not necessarily equate true learning. Many are beginning to wonder if we need schools anymore. It’s not that we want kids growing up to be uninformed adults. It’s just that schools as we know them came into existence to solve a problem, lack of education and information for the public. We no longer have that problem. We have all the information we want. In fact, in many cases, we probably have too much. Maybe the solution isn’t to get rid of schools. Maybe the solution is to change tactics and refocus how we teach and learn (which, thankfully, some institutions are beginning to explore).
And this is where peer-to-peer learning can provide us with new opportunities. Our culture has learned well enough in recent history that just because someone, even a very intelligent and well-educated someone, says “it is so” doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is. We don’t need someone feeding us information and telling us, “think that way” or “believe this thing.” What we need is a present-day version of the havruta, a community of people that we can discuss and debate with. We have all the information in the world. If I want to know what this guru or that expert says, I’ll Google it. If I want to process through it in a health way… well, that takes community. I need a haver, a friend or two, in order to pull that off really well.
1: For more, see Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 316-8; Keri Wyatt Kent, Deeper into the Word: Reflections on 100 Words from the New Testament (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishing, 2011), 81-3; and Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 33.