Knowledge Inheritance

My grandmother passed away on March 3rd, 2018. She lived 92 years. As part of the memorial service, members of the extended family all wrote a piece of eulogy saying how our grandmother mattered to us. It was only then I realized that she has been an important heritage to the family, but as individuals, we only knew a small part of her. Together, we assembled a picture that still felt incomplete, but what we do know is that she was talented, and that she both passed on and created new legacy of her own.

I have a lot of respect for legacy, but the word got a bad connotation when the later generations only reproduced the formality established earlier, and didn't understand why it was done that way, so they would cling onto the formality and refuse to improve. It would be like trying to follow my grandmother's recipe procedurally but not understand how each ingredient and each step contribute to the final dish. It's clear that even though everyone in the family enjoyed her food, those of us who understood her cooking philosophy enjoyed a greater success in cooking.

I often wondered this question about knowledge inheritance. Let's say a student learns the material in a class and gets full mark 100% on all homework and tests, the teacher still knows something more that wasn't covered in the class. If the student only learns a fraction of what the teacher knows, then less and less knowledge gets passed on after generations, until there is nothing left. You can slow down the degeneration of knowledge by training the teachers with more than necessary qualification to teach, but these teachers would simply be on a slower degrade curve. How does the collective body of human knowledge grow?

The traditional model is that you have a smaller body of academia whose Ph.D.'s and professors do research and grow this body of knowledge. This has worked well for established disciplines, but there are two problems.

The first problem is that a field of knowledge without formal discipline would not benefit from the academia model. This can be solved by formalizing the discipline, and indeed we have those for fine arts, theater, music, cuisine, even parenting. But once intimate and deeply meaningful subject matters, they have lost a personal touch after they are formalized. And many things are more vague: how do you formalize a person's well-being into a field of study?

The second problem with formal disciplines is that the methodology for the research could still fall into disarray and eventually fail to produce any new meaningful knowledge. For example, most scientists can't replicate studies by their peers when the research omitted important details in the procedure and/or applied weak statistical model. Peer reviews were unable to correct the course of bad research due to self-selection bias. Although at a higher level, making sure the knowledge is reproducible helped recognizing these issues.

I think that even individually, not all is lost. A student may only learn a fraction from one teacher, but they could learn from several teachers and combine all these learnings in creative ways and add in some personal touch. And these combinations could yield new insights and have a multiplicative effect on the knowledge. The important thing is that we must hold the knowledge accountable for reproducibility, and we must commit to thoughtfully process what we learned, not just regurgitate the knowledge.

Learn, think, and create. This is really how knowledge should be inherited for generations to come.

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