Friday, October 16, 2009

You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Want To Know...Is That True?

Last week was John Perry Barlow's birthday and I meant to post this then, but let's play with it today.

One of my favorite Barlow lyrics comes from "Black Throated Wind," "You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know." I'm wondering whether that's true.

That assessment requires knowing what it means. Like so many Dead lyrics it is wonderfully ambiguous, lending itself to expensive interpretations. The first would relate to factual knowledge, if there is a truth about the world that conflicts with your desired belief, you will ignore the inconvenient truth.

Does that mean that rational thought and legitimate means of persuasion about controversial topics are futile? Doesn't this mean that the foundation of democracy itself, a rational, well-informed electorate, is impossible to achieve and that it is doomed to fail? Or is it just difficult, but something that can be overcome with rhetorical means that cause cracks in the wall where logic can seep in? Or is it all just rhetoric?

A second interpretation has come to mind recently because we are about to begin our regular twice a decade discussion about curricular requirements at Gettysburg and one could apply this sentiment to fields of study. If there are subjects that students don't care about, is it pointless to require them? Will students learn anything in courses they don't want to take? Should profs spend a significant amount of time motivating a subject, rather than working through the arguments in it?

Can you learn what you don't want to know? If so, how do we create a mind open enough to be so influenced?

Should you need some context: