Wissenschaft and Kenntnis

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.



2 thoughts on “Wissenschaft and Kenntnis

  1. This reminds me of the phrase “A little bit of knowledge is worse than no knowledge at all.”

    Everyday, either on local newscasts or in The Blade, I see people spouting off incorrect information because they “read it somewhere”, but because of their total lack of personal experience they have no idea how to understand what they’re reading. I remember taking government accounting and it was DRY. But when the instructor actually brought in the property tax tables for Lucas County, it made so much more sense.

    Right now many readers of this blog may be having this problem. It’s all about them damn corporations and their profit seeking at our expense. As I’ve mentioned before, my profession before I retired was mortgage banking. It’s not the corporations making those decisions, but the hedge fund managers demanding immediate profits at any cost. And those very hedge funds are investments by the ordinary citizen. They could be your 401K plan, your union pension fund, or the biggie in the market, life insurance companies. If you’re retired, but still get money from somewhere (i.e.: pension, social security, annuities), your benefiting from those damn corporations and their maximizing profits attitude.

    I bet if you saw where your pension funds were invested, you’d come across Halliburton, Walmart or maybe a tobacco company. I know I got a little sidetracked, but we are forced to accept what we’re told sometimes, instead of learning through experience, because we have no other choice.

    (No choice because the politicians we elect to deal with this are corrupted because they need $ to stay in office.)

  2. M-r would you mind simplifying down all those paragraphs? Whats your point or message?

    You certainly are not saying that public elementary and secondary education
    should be based on kenen or experiential learning?

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