Knowledge of humility

So I have just crossed two of the four hurdles towards my next doctoral degree. I have completed all the course work (the last one was very demanding) and cleared the much-dreaded Qualifying Exam.

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With my supervisor, Prof. Todd Sandel

Now what is a qualifying exam? In different countries it comes with different names, shapes, sizes and formats. In the US and Canada it is called Comprehensive Exam, in other countries it is referred to as General Exams or Preliminary Exams. It consist of a long written part spanning for few days followed by an oral defence where you respond to the committee of 3-4 professors. You have only two shots. If you fail once, you can take another one. And that’s it. The objective is to test your overall knowledge in the field you will be getting your PhD and also see if you are deemed fit to be called a scholar. It is not simply a test of the cumulative knowledge of the courses you have taken (I took six) but a test of your preparation to work independently at the highest level hereafter. In other words, it is a rite of passage from being a student till now – to a distinguished title or status of being referred to as scholar, doctor, etc. Simply put, as a student you absorb knowledge. As a scholar you produce knowledge. Big difference. The next step is for you to produce something new in the form of a dissertation, which, if accepted, confers you the title of doctor. Doctor comes from Latin word, docere, which means “to teach”. In other words, after your knowledge is accepted by the discipline, you are also entitled to teach it to others. This practice has its roots in Italy that saw some of the first universities in the western world (e.g. my Alma mater, University of Bologna). Now, of course, titles of PhD and doctors have changed in their meaning and purpose. 

To come back to my experience of this Q exam, it’s been few months of consuming lots of coffees, kit kats, communication theories, research methodologies and selected works from philosophy, religion, sociology, history, anthropology, sociolinguistics, semiotics and technology. Communication cuts across many fields and take almost all the theories from sociology. The written exam was a solitary confinement for 3 days in a row (you can also choose to spread it over a month but I like getting done away with) – each lasting 8 hours to finally produce some 12,000+ word length of what could be the last humanly readable paper. After this, no one will understand what you write. 👿👿👿

Then the oral part was a 3-hour slash-and-burn farming on my ideas 😂😂😂. 

Now that I am done with it, how do I feel? I don’t know. Have I learnt anything? A lot. Do I feel wiser? Not at all. In fact, now I feel less confident (or may be more humble) than before I started. I was sharing this feeling with another Bhutanese friend who is also in a PhD programme. He is going through the same kind of transformation. Basically, PhD is a process where you finally know how much you don’t know – and that is really a humbling dose. And perhap the greatest lesson one learns in a grad school. 

So then, is one of the ultimate objectives of knowledge to make you more humble? Perhaps. When I look around and imagine some of the most learnt Bhutanese I have come across – people like my family lama – Rangshikhar Rimpoche, my lama-friend – Eminence Tsugla Lopen (I say “friend” because I am spiritually not at the level to be his disciple), our historian, Dr. Karma Phuntsho and then my last employer, RTC President Thakur Singh, they are all very humble people. In fact, in Bhutanese we say “behaving like someone has no knowledge” if your acts are rowdy and uncultured. Maybe there is a wisdom to that.

I guess, ultimately

Knowledge makes you humble. Ignorance inflates your ego.

Coming back to the Q Exam, I am sharing my experience not to scare anyone but to show how the system works. PhD is absolutely doable. I hope our universities back home will offer because it leads you to another world of knowledge, discovery and perspectives of life. You should go for it – especially if you are a teacher – in a school or in a university. But don’t go for it, looking forward to a fancy title and the world to bow down to you after you complete it (see the cartoon below). You should go for it because learning excites you, it makes you really happy and you can leave behind some knowledge for mankind. If I can, so will you. I am not even doing it in what I studied in undergrad (engineering) or my career (film and journalism). Those subjects would have been too easy. As is of me, I chose the red pill and I am looking broadly at communication as a tool in sociolinguistics and philosophy. These are challenging concepts but very exciting. 

As I wrote in my earlier blog entry, you should keep learning because if you stop learning, you stop living.

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What is this noise?

btyRadio – Back to the Future III

(In this third and last part, I highlight the need for the society to slow down and reflect – and for the traditional media such as radio, TV, and newspapers to be proactive and not reactive. This article is an elaboration of the talk in Romania)

A story goes that a Rabbit was sleeping under a tree and dreaming of the world ending in front of him. He suddenly woke up, and thought: “What if the world really should collapse? What would become of me?” At that instant, a coconut fell on the ground. On hearing the noise, the Rabbit was like: “The world is really blowing up!” And he jumped up and ran just as fast as he could, without even looking back to see what had made the noise. Two deer saw him running, and called after him, “What are you running so fast for?” “Don’t you know? The earth is all breaking up!” he replied. And on he ran, and the deer followed him when they heard that the earth was all falling apart. They passed a fox, calling out to him that the earth was all breaking up. The fox then ran with them. The fox called to an elephant to come along because the earth was all breaking up. On and on they ran, and all the animals in the forests joined in the running.

The age of Internet has got the world running. We heard a noise and we all started running – and we are still. Nobody is asking what was that noise. Instead, it is speed, speed and speed. Everything at giga bits per second. Faster computers, faster Internet, faster emails and faster cellphones over above the fast cars, fast planes and fast trains that we already have. Even my country Bhutan, in less than a decade, has gone from 2G to 3G to 4G to soon, 5G. But faster to where or faster for what? Nobody knows.

The irony is that the traditional media, such as the radio and the television – the original gatekeepers and messiahs, have joined the bandwagon. So, news need to be put on air as fast as possible – and, at times, with accuracy and objectivity severely compromised. At best, the news item is shallow devoid of any context or background. Newsreaders have to read the news as fast as they can. That’s the trend. There is also no time to sit and watch a full bulletin. Hence, many news channels just flash the headlines without the main story. In-depth research is a passé because what is news in the morning is history by evening.

There is a fundamental question that we need to ask. Why are we running?

What do people do with the ‘extra’ time that they have ‘saved’ from whatever they were doing? Do they pursue something that they love, something that they are passionate about, their hobby such as painting, cooking, music or gardening? Do they spend quality time with friends and family? Do they pursue spiritual practices? We often notice that as we drive home, people don’t let others overtake because they want to get to their destination fast. There is growing impatience and anger. In Bhutan, we are seeing a new phenomenon that was unheard before: road rage. Anyway, what do people do after they get to their destination? Back to the fast life, I guess – or just gossiping – in our case.

edfSecond, the prophets of technocracy have promised that the world would be more connected. Physically I cannot refute the claim. Yes, we are connected to everyone in multiple modes – phones, Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. We are even connected from 39,000 feet when I am cruising in a jetliner. However, just as there is a big difference between having information and being informed, there is also a difference between ‘being connected’ and reals connections. It is not very unusual to see these days groups of friends gather for dinner or coffee and, instead of talking to each other, would be on their respective phones or gadgets. Where is the connection?

People are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long term impact of such behaviours on the human species?

Last, and the most important. As a teacher one of the most difficult tasks in teaching is to grab the attention and retain them while you are teaching. Scientifically, the average attention span was thought to be fifteen minutes. With the world being pushed to be faster and speed being the new normal, our role has become even harder. The attention span of even adults, I assume, has reduced. In academic conferences we are given just ten minutes to present our paper. Some newspapers have asked me to write opinion pieces under 500 words. It is crazy. The impact is not only in classrooms but also in life where people are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long-term impact of such behaviours on the human species? Is anyone even asking that question?

Almost every place on Earth and beyond is connected and yet misunderstandings, war and conflicts continue to terrorize not only those involved directly but also those who have nothing to do with the issue. Similarly, there is so much information out there on everything – public health, for example, and yet the world is sicker than ever. Facts and figures are lying around like leaf litters in the forests while campaigns of disinformation and mal-information are very successful – even in the so-called developed world. According to a survey done by a German scholar, 40% of respondents in Europe said that they fell flat for the fake news while the same study revealed that 60% could not separate myths from simple facts.

More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean that we are better informed.

What does all this mean? It means that we need to slow down, reflect before moving forward. More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean we are better informed. Speed does not mean that we are getting things done well. We need to ponder on what is happening around us. We need to understand what the noise is all about – and stop running unnecessarily.

As is an individual, so is an organisation. The traditional media such as radio, TV and newspaper need to do some deep introspection and retrospection. They need to ask who they are and what is their fundamental role. Can they allow knee-jerk reactions? Is it to get the news faster or is it to give accurate and objective information? Is it whitewash the society with shallow and superficial shows or is it to enlighten the people with deeper meanings so that they make informed choices and make positive changes? I don’t mean that they should be indifferent. What I am saying is that they take time to respond – be proactive – but not reactive. The traditional media should lead – and not be lead. There is no need for them to play the catch up game.

The traditional media should lead – and not be led. They should be proactive – not reactive.

Niel Postman, writing in Technopoly, suggests that the impact of a technology is known only decades after it is introduced. Hence, it is too early to say that social media is bad. The initial studies are not positive. Narcissism, anxiety and loss of human connection, family and community are some of the initial findings. Hence, it would be wise for the social science to catch up and then the traditional media can decide whether and how to join the race.

The opening story ends with the King of Jungle, the mighty Lion, appearing and ordering for the running to stop. Inquiries and investigation ensue that finally lead to the Rabbit who had assumed that the world was falling apart after hearing a coconut fall behind him. The world was not cracking up. It was just an imagination. It was a simple error of not fact-checking.

Hopefully, one day, we would realise that a faster world is not necessarily better, and that, actually, we haven’t even set a destination as yet. Then what are we running for? To get to where?

What is this noise?

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NB:

(At Centennial Radio 101FM in Bhutan one of the most popular programs in Slow and Easy that plays soft music with some pieces of life quotes. We are starting a Centennial Book Cafe where we will invite listeners to come and relax and have a coffee; to put down their phone and talk to each other; to call their illiterate parents or grandparents back in the village – instead of doing only status updates on social media.)

 

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An additional challenge for teachers – Getting the attention of the students from an already attention-deficit-society

 

The Illusion of Being a Knowledgeable

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Radio – Back to the Future II
(In this second part, I highlight some of the consequences of losing the traditional media such as radio, TV, books and newspapers and storytelling tradition. This article in based on the talk in Romania)

A legend says that 5,000 years ago, the Upper Egypt was ruled by a king known as Thamus. Theuth, an inventor, once sought an audience with the King where he presented his latest discovery: writing. Theuth who also invented a myriad of other things was fully convinced that his latest brainchild would be welcomed, “Here, my Lord, is an accomplishment that will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians,” he submitted to the King. The King, however, was not very impressed and after a long thought, replied,

“Theuth, my paragon of inventors, those who acquire it (writing) will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”

Does a vast quantity of information necessarily mean knowledge? This is an interesting point – and, nonetheless, relevant even today. The new media technology lays in front of us so much information at a click of a mouse – or on our mobile phone – anywhere anytime. At no point in time in human history has so much materials been available so easily. However, does that make us more informed? More knowledgeable? Or wiser? Well, it is more plausible what King Thamus had predicted 5,000 years back. And that people would think of themselves as “very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant”. Let me elaborate.

One problem with too much information is the overload that does not allow a reader to sieve ‘good’ and relevant information from the junk. This is the reason why fake news thrive. We are no more selective of important facts from the less important ones. We cannot judge between the good and the bad, relevant from the irrelevant or right from the wrong. Many urban teenagers in Bhutan can name every member of any K-Pop group but wouldn’t be able to say who the first three desis (governors) of Bhutan were – or in the contemporary parlance, to name all the members of the Cabinet. Still, if we  want to stick to K-Pop, do we know that the K-wave is subsidised by the government to exert their soft power politically and globally and that it is also is used as a PR cart to sell Korean products in the ever-competitive world market?

Not only that there is information overdrive these days, one is also subjected to the illusion of being widely informed and knowledgeable. Today as one scrolls the timeline of the FaceBook page or Twitter, one is fed with news and information from across the globe on variety of subjects; from the latest resolution in the UN Security Council to a dog being trapped in a well in remote India; from new scientific discoveries, whether true of not, to ancient Ayurvedic treatment for cancer, which the world had supposedly forgotten. Everyone knows who won the US election, that the Brits are leaving the European Union and that Kim Jong Un is testing nuclear weapons.

There is a difference between having information and being informed, though. Having information is nothing if one does not know the context or the prevailing circumstances. Information is like a raw material. You need more ingredients and some craftsmanship to turn it into a final product – to make a judgement or an assessment. Conversely, if you base your decision on a piece or on fragmented pieces of information it is likely to be dangerous. This is what is happening every day around the world these days. Character assassinations, campaigns of disinformation and fake news are having a field day. In one of the best sessions at the conference in Romania, researchers had presented some early study of how fake news and the illusion of being informed altered the voting pattern in one of the most “developed” nations on Earth.

All these bring us to the issue of substance, accuracy and credibility, which the new media such as Twitter and Facebook is short of. You can’t make a judgment on the Palestinian-Israeli issue in 140 characters or shoot down Aung San Suu Kyi’s persona or her Nobel Prize based on one Facebook post or picture. Therefore, the good ole media such as the radio, TV, books and newspaper and our own storytelling tradition will continue to, and should, play an important role to maintain a good level of public discourse. Of all places on Earth, the US of A has realised this after the 2016 Presidential elections. New York Times and Washington Post have seen increased sales and subscriptions in 2017.

One can’t say for sure where a well-informed society would take us but a shallow one, which we are fast becoming, can deliver the deadliest of consequences for mankind and nations. And it’s not me saying this. Someone called Siddharta Gautama based his teachings, some 2,500 years ago, on the need to alleviate ignorance, which at the very best, as Thamus had put, would be “a burden to the society” and to the world.

(In the next entry I will elaborate on my experience that I presented at the conference)

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Hotel Casino – the venue of the PBI conference