The Importance of Exposure

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

-Robert A. Heinlein

A recent article by Hash on the White African blog prompted this post.  In it, the author mentions how Kenya is facing a web design problem as exhibited by “professional” websites created in Kenya not necessarily meeting the criteria for professional websites created in other parts of the world, no matter the other country’s developed status. Commentators have opened up numerous avenues of discussion as to why this is the case, and I have contributed a comment myself, citing a lack of education in modern design technique.

The post, however specific it is, actually brings up one of the biggest issues I have with the Kenyan education system, and Kenya in general.  One of the largest problems facing this country is its lack of exposure to just about everything outside of Kenya.  In some ways, this is good.  Isolation can allow a country to solve its own problems first before tackling those faced by our globalized world.  It can also help increase national pride and even strengthen the economy when proper isolationist economic principles are actively pursued.

But I am still asked on a regular basis if American’s know what lions are before they come to Kenya.  Do we have lions in America? How do Americans learn about lions?  In explaining about zoos and books and pictures and video tapes used in education I begin to wonder about the differences between here and home.  How do we learn about that which is not immediately present?

The third jab at the lack of exposure in Kenya comes from my having recently explained the liberal arts-style of education, that, though not all Americans undertake to its culmination at the undergraduate level, still heavily influences our public school systems which therefore affects a great majority of Americans.  Needless to say, Americans are exposed to many things growing up, even if they will never impact their lives directly.

Exposure is critical to development.  Amongst my co-teachers here at NYS I am constantly encountering the “expert-style” education mentality, where you are educated to become an expert in one field and ignore all other fields.  This exists even in America, and I amusingly reference a recent episode of Scrubs where the main character J.D., a very thoughtful, introspective, medical doctor does not know the location of the country Iraq.  But in America, we also have an inherit passive exposure system derived from the sheer multi cultural nature of the country; we have to work far less to be exposed to far more things than in Kenya.

Where does Kenya increase its level of exposure then? Through the education system would be the easiest place.  But here we have a problem.  The education system is all geared towards testing and certification.  As long as the testing authorities never adapt their syllabus to the constantly fluctuating world knowledge base, then teachers will feel less compelled, and even compelled against, exposing their students to the most current methods and theories, even when those methods and theories present completely benign but progressive enhancements to old methodologies (i.e. are non-controversial).  Why do Kenyan web designers not implement the latest practices in web design? Because the KASNEB regulatory authority has not updated its curriculum to reflect this as a need.

I remember a phrase a friend told me a few years ago: “The media does not impact how you think, it just changes what you think about.”  Abstracting this phrase a bit, a human brain is highly capable of connecting facts, forming patterns between facts, drawing conclusions from those facts and acting upon those conclusions, with a little training.  What makes somebody truly effective is increasing the number of facts the brain has available to process, even if those facts don’t seem immediately relevant to the matter at hand.

Part of critical thinking and analysis is understanding patterns between facts, but the best way to understand patterns is to bring in seemingly extraneous information and being amazed when the patterns you observe in the realm of computer science also apply in history, or biology, or religion.  Exposure is the key to this, and in Kenya, in order to increase exposure, we need to force the education regulators to start seeing this as a need.  Only then will we have good Kenyan web designers. At least, that’s what I think.

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2 responses to “The Importance of Exposure

  1. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. A friend of mine linked to this post, and I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on exposure. We’ve got the same issues here. The bit about lions made me laugh; in the Phils they ask, In America, do you eat rice?

  2. Jan

    “The media does not impact how you think, it just changes what you think about.”

    Good post. The quote above brings to mind the discussion going around now about the impact that social media are having on the way we think and express what we are thinking. Are Facebook and Twitter beginning to shape the way we think? Yes, for me. In case you missed this recent NYT peice: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html?ref=magazine

    As for schools, the challenge of exposing students to the vast and ever-growing amount of content (facts) is being nudged aside by the need to teach them how to navigate many sources, think critically and synthesize often-conflicting ideas. Yet often those who are most successful (JD in Scrubs) know how to do one thing very well. Unfortunately we can’t be experts in everything but we still depend on experts. Not sure how to resolve this conundrum!

    I thought of you today (Aug 4) because of the referendum in Kenya — look forward to a post about that.