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Five signs you share Donald Trump’s ‘gapped’ logic

The US president’s rhetoric has the hallmarks of a cognitive ‘stuttering’ that’s creeping into schools, argues Fiachra Long

A new work by Dublin-based painter and NCAD graduate Shane Berkery of Donald Trump, whose rhetoric has the hallmarks of ‘gapped knowledge’. Photograph: Shane Berkery

The way we speak and the way we think are becoming increasingly divorced from the way we are being educated.

Despite all the reforms (or attempted reforms) of recent years, schools follow a traditional, “knowledge tree” approach to learning where education grows incrementally, sprouting from a firm foundation.

An alternative model is “rhizomatic learning” – named after the rhizome plant which sprouts off in different directions, with older parts dying off in the process.

“One type of knowledge is based on a line of progress that can be measured and another type of knowledge is more flexible but less reliable,” explains Dr Fiachra Long, head of the School of Education at UCC.

A thorny issue for educationalists is whether to stick with the old or promote the new as technology increasingly disrupts norms within the workplace and society. Third level institutions and employers are crying out for multi-tasking, cross disciplinary thinkers but what is lost if “old curriculums” are abandoned?

“Rhizomatic learners can start anywhere and end anywhere and you never know what they know or don’t know about anything. They can be surprisingly precocious in what they know but they can also be surprisingly ignorant of the basics,” says Long.

The reformed Junior Cycle, with its focus on attributes and skills, fits into the rhizomatic framework. There are potential benefits but also serious risks attached. One of these is a drift towards “gapped knowledge”, features of which Long identifies in the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Dr Long lists the principles of such “knowledge” as follows:

1. Start anywhere, break off anywhere;

2. You don’t need to remember your tracks;

3. You don’t have to commit to any item of knowledge, even when you have it, because all is dispensable;

4. You prefer short gapped “facts” over narrative; and

5. The total picture of anything is unattainable or in other words no disciplinary boundaries are to be expected.

Whatever your stance on the Junior Cycle reforms, be warned, says Long: “The rhizome has now entered the structure of curriculum planning.”

How is our concept of knowledge changing?

“Traditionally school knowledge is based on curriculum. Subject areas have syllabi and guidelines. You have to enter at a certain place and there are markers along the way. It’s like a line that extends outward, marked by increasing competence.

“Surfing the web, on the other hand is more associated with fun. You can enter it anywhere and leave at any time. . . This leads to generalized borrowing of ideas, mindful of Mark Twain’s warning that there are no original ideas anyway, and the norms generated by social media invitations to ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ lead everyone to follow trending thoughts and narratives.”

What’s the downside of this?

“A general tolerance for gapped knowledge leads to what one researcher describes as generalized stuttering. We stutter from fact to fact, not sure what possible narrative might link them together. We google our ‘how to do’ and ‘what is’ questions and jump from one thing to another.

“Indeed our knowledge could even be as gapped as a Donald Trump speech. Perhaps this is the way we best respond to knowledge today: short, bite-sized, disconnected, emotive. And this is what we have decided is the most optimal, the most modern, the most appealing form of knowledge for ‘real people’. The Guardian journalist, Mark Thompson, has described this speech style as twitterlike.

“Of course the invention of ‘short courses’ in our schools has become a way of coping with information overload even though it claims to be about releasing the young from exam pressure. It is a rhizomatic solution to information overload but the trouble is that children all too easily become jumpers and stutterers just like the rest of us.”

Is that not prudent, though, in a very uncertain and turbulent world? It may be that, in future, we need a little bit of understanding about a lot of things rather than a lot of knowledge about a few things.

“Perhaps my comments here are a little provocative. We are moving from traditional subjects that seem locked in history and arguably removed from current youth experience to subjects that claim to be relevant to youth experience but are largely disconnected from history.

“While the promotion of certain areas of interest is always a feature of curriculum design – and traditional curricula also exclude some issues while including others – it is interesting to see what subject areas are being sidelined or even dropped by local initiatives. The evidence seems to point to history itself being in the line of fire or those subject areas that demand a holistic response from learners. We are moving to an à la carte rather than a set menu.

“If a short course promoting an understanding of horse management or fishing is adopted because it is considered key to the economic profile of a particular place, what areas are being dropped to make way?

“Of course I would support the general introduction of philosophy at all ages in school – not simply the French model of reserving philosophy for the top stream – but my observation has to do with the way a curriculum is being constructed as a contemporary event, a canvas that has become faded by the absence of critical history.

“The surge of the contemporary will deliver a curriculum closer to a rhizome in shape than is presumed by traditionally-minded curriculum makers.”

Is there a case to be made for doing both types of learning - both “knowledge tree” and rhizomatic approaches - or can the brain accommodate the two at once?

“What would enable us to make such a switch between the model of a tree and the model of a rhizome? Tree-knowledge people would always say that we cannot know everything and so it is only prudent, even wise, to acknowledge our ignorance and recognise the fallibility of our knowledge.

“In these circumstances tree-knowledge people think of their knowledge as part of a totality which, no doubt someone somewhere possesses but they don’t. But they still hold that masterly knowledge is possible. If there are no longer people alive who can know everything, they presume that it is still valid for a person to aspire to knowing everything about some area.

“A rhizomatic knower, however, has no aspiration to ever gain total knowledge and may even have reckoned that such a knowledge is humanly impossible. If this is so, rhizomatic knowers do not bother switching from the part they know to the whole they don’t know because there is no whole.

“Why this particular period in history is so alarming is the rupture between rhizomatic culture and the presumed consensus that all valid knowledge is tree-like and consequently has structural coherence. Overall coherence, however, in a post-truth world will soon surrender to computer systems due to its complexity and density.”


Ask a sage:

Question: “I’m confused, is knowledge a salmon, a tree or a fount?”

Plutarch replies: “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”