“To know, is to know that you know nothing.
That is the meaning of true knowledge.”
“You dropped $150,000 on a fucking education you coulda got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”
I graduated from college just over six months ago. During my four years at Wesleyan University, I accumulated over 190 credit hours, taking courses in philosophy, history, film, microbiology, organic chemistry, physics, economics, psychology, political science, neuroscience, and sociology. It was a liberal arts education, to be sure.
At this junction, however, I already seem to be losing my grasp on most of those subjects I studied. Although I once knew this material well enough to pass my courses, I now maintain only a cursory understanding of the subject matter. Neural connections that would otherwise bring forth the particulars of an oxidation reaction or the calculation of an excise tax have decayed from neglect, pruned to make space for more salient data.
The substance of an undergraduate education, of course, is not found just in the information one learns from lectures. Rather, the value of higher education also comes with the rigorous intellectual atmosphere provided, through which critical thinking skills develop, viewpoints are challenged, and introspection about one’s position in society and in the cosmos can be undertaken.
(Whether present institutions of higher education, including those lauded as “elite,” foster such environments is a topic for another piece.)
No matter this aside, I am troubled by the deterioration of my hard-earned college education in my memory bank. Can I truly claim to have consummate knowledge— or at least one worthy of a bachelor’s degree— of neuroscience and economics if certain concepts escape me just six months after graduation?
Over the last month, I began to devise a method to efficiently re-learn most of the information I was taught at Wesleyan and in my AP classes in high school with the goal of retaining the material for the rest of my working life and applying the knowledge to future projects. If the framework proves successful, I aim to use it to gain a deep understanding of other disciplines.
Though college may have ended, my intellectual appetite is far from sated.
I’ve been calling the collection of information I plan to accumulate a “knowledge repository,” a term I borrowed from computer science. Conventionally, a knowledge repository refers to a systematically organized database shared among different entities to better inform decision-making and problem-solving.
Often, such a database is stored on a server and can be accessed by individuals remotely through the Internet. Though some repositories are proprietary (think data about past business clients, sales projections, and job applicants), certain organizations, such as the World Bank, have released their repositories into the public domain.
Despite the unnerving similarities between a human brain and a modern computer, encoding new data as neural connections is exponentially more difficult than downloading a .jpeg file from your email inbox. Likewise, recalling those data often takes seconds to minutes longer than a computer does to retrieve a file or a search engine to complete a query.
So, perhaps the use of the term is not quite warranted, though I have yet to devise a better alternative.
To pilot this framework, I am reviewing topics in economics and re-familiarizing myself with the Spanish language. Concomitant to this pursuit, I am also preparing to take the GRE in about two months.
A clear distinct should be drawn here between useful data and trivia. The information that will be important on the GRE is made explicitly clear through numerous test prep materials (several thousands English vocabulary words, mental math strategies, critical reading strategies, among others). When delving into different schools of knowledge, even those with which I am familiar, knowing what is useful and what is useless is an exercise in itself.
For some idiopathic reason, I know that 40 to 50 percent of the U.S. adult population will experience sleep atonia (AKA sleep paralysis) at least once in their lives and that there is a genetic basis for those patients who suffer from chronic sleep atonia, which is particularly prevalent in the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
Now, will these facts help to solve human rights abuses, famines, refugee crises, genocides, affordable housing shortages, gun violence, or poverty? No, but I might win the $400 clue for the Jeopardy! category, “Somnolent Symptoms.”
As such, in building this knowledge repository I must be wary to encode only those data which will provide a measurable impact in future endeavors and avoid those solely of a trivial pursuit. A well-tried algorithm— a codified process to solve a problem— will do well here to discern the signal amidst the noise. Such guidelines are still a work in progress.
The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.
– Piotr Woźniak, creator of the learning algorithm embedded in Anki [Wired, 21 Apr 2008]
The data I intend to encode will be sourced from peer-reviewed articles, commercial books, textbooks, and reputable sources on the Internet, such as Khan Academy and courses on edX. A full list can be found here.
These data will be encoded through a flashcard software called Anki, Japanese for “memorization.” Anki is an open-source, multi-platform application that utilizes a spaced repetition algorithm to allow users to more efficiently and effectively encode data. In short, I review only those flashcards that I am most at risk of forgetting, instead of haphazardly scanning through all of the cards in a particular set.
(I previously wrote a guide to Anki here.)
Let’s say I was reading through Wikipedia’s List of landmark Supreme Court cases and I made a few basic flashcards about the first such landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, in Anki.
Anki then presents a card,
Front: Which Supreme Court case formed the basis for the exercise of judicial review?
*Millions, if not billions, of neurons fire action potentials as a feverish search begins for the correct answer*
*I whisper a response to myself*
Back: Marbury v Madison (1803)
Along with the presentation of the back of the card, I evaluate how well I recalled the information. If I recalled the landmark case with ease, I select “Easy” and will only be shown the card again after an interval of four days (as denoted in the image below).
If I strained to think of the right answer, but still responded correctly, I’d select “Good” and see the card again in about ten minutes.
If, however, I did not recall the correct Supreme Court case, I will be shown the card again in about a minute (immediately, if this is the only card to review) and once I finally answer correctly, presented with the above set of options.
After selecting “Good” and correctly recalling the card again, I can select “Good” to see the card tomorrow or “Easy” to, as above, review the card in four days.
In time, the interval becomes progressively longer (up to ten years, in some cases) as my brain becomes more efficient at recalling the information.
Making and reviewing flashcards in Anki will be the major mechanism through which I aim to encode new knowledge in my repository. I am also exploring the use of the so-called Feynman Technique to deepen my understanding of the material once it is encoded.
(Richard P. Feynman was a Nobel laureate in physics, a great innovator in pedagogy, and an extraordinary raconteur; I recently read his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and could not stop laughing.)
With these useful data stored in my knowledge repository, I will, in theory, be able to later retrieve them when analyzing public policy proposals, presenting my own viewpoints and beliefs, discussing current events with friends, debating with family members, or teaching others in a classroom setting.
In other words, innumerable dividends will be paid for my investment of time and energy in constructing this repository of knowledge.