Learning at the Cost of Understanding

I drove Gary to the FSSA office today out on Crawfordsville Road. He recently got approved for disability and there was some additional bureaucratic stuff we needed to do via appointment.

This blog isn’t about that bureaucratic stuff.

Instead it is about the skills involved in the modern world to make the bureaucratic stuff happen. More broadly, it is about skills of that nature in general.

Sitting next to Gary in the cubicle in a maze of cubicles, I noticed how the worker had two computer screens at her desk, both with information up. On the primary screen she worked off of, she entered data, switched screens, then more data, and so on. At one point she got assistance from a supervisor on how a particular entry had to entered and was advised to enter such and such here, then here, then click here, switch screen here, enter such and such here, and so on. Then she was back on her own entering and clicking and screen-to-screening and turning the great bureaucracy forward for our benefit.

No doubt the program used is a very specific program and the person who knows how to use it — has such skill — is valued by the administration for possessing them … valued that is until the program becomes outdated, is abandoned, or otherwise no longer around.

I originally was going to call this entry high-level skills versus low-level skills. But I thought “low” in low-level sounded disparaging of possessing such skills, which is neither my intent nor focus. Also the word “skill” itself is a misleading term what with how much can be lumped under it. A significant amount can be lumped under “learning” and “understanding”, too, but I will cash them out in a way that will distinguish them and perhaps limit such lumping.

Companies like to trumpet that they encourage learning. Other companies promise to help you “learn new skills” to make employers snatch you up. However, often the learning and skills that fall out of that educational endeavor are short-term helpful at best to the ‘student’ but long-term harmful.

For knowing a skill doesn’t guarantee you understanding of something. Yet understanding is what’s most valuable because it is transferable and transcends the particularities of a situation.

Learning to me is gaining knowledge of “how” to do something. Understanding also involves a how, but that how encompasses the environment outside its current situation. Understanding embraces other one-word questions like “Why?” and “How?” while furthermore encouraging the world-changing “What now?”.

For example, we learn to avoid fire early in our human evolving because it tends to cause bodily harm to us. But understanding how fire is created, what it burns, and a host of other things about fire and its relationship to the world means we can cook with it, warm with it, and largely control it for purposes far beyond that initial “fire bad and scary” exposure.

Another, more modern example: knowing how to enter HR data into, say, Peoplesoft is a skill. But better is knowing how that data relates to the people it describes. Even better still, as an HR professional, is knowing how to most effectively put a decent workforce together. The latter knowledge requires understanding of such things as work needs, labor pools, and recruitment strategies, all of which can be used and leveraged regardless of the workplace specifics.

Yet we see a large chunk of the jobs in the marketplace where the person is expected — required even — to have experience with a “learned” skill instead of possession of an understanding. More and more you see this in job ads, which rencourages a rush to learn rather than to understand. This is very helpful to the company of course, as they can plug the person in the like a cog in a machine.

But for the employee? I say it is short-term helpful for the obvious: a “learned” skill gets you that niche job, you get paid, and you can buy stuff so you can enjoy little luxuries like food and shelter. The long-term harm here isn’t as directly visible as the short-term company paycheck, so I’ll try to cast light on it this way:

Imagine your life as a finite series of moments. Which it is, so that should be easy to imagine. Each moment can be used for either action x or action y, any combination you wish. But since there are only so many moments to go around, action x is always “Life – action y”, and vice versa. So more time spent on learning skill x is less time spent on understanding y.

Now granted x and y can — and should — work in tandem. Y may even require x. But…

Imagine having a car. You learn how to turn it on. You learn how to change its tires, check its oil, put gas in it. All of this is good stuff — good skills — and helpful to have learned. But what if you were never allowed to take it out of the garage, let alone out on the road? This is exactly the kind of environment the modern workforce seems like it is promoting with its emphasis on narrowly defined “experience”.

Which is all good and well for the gas company, the tire company, the garage company… for the whatever company that reaps huge benefit from the continuously exploited skill. But the benefit for the worker of such in-demand ability is drowned by the obvious:

Under such vehicular conditions, just how far down the road of a well-lived life will they have gotten?