Musings On Mottos

November 21, 2019

Sanaa Makhlouf
 

Presiding over the Ewart Hall stage is a golden engraving of Lord Tennyson’s verses:

Let knowledge grow from more to more

But more of reverence in us dwell.

Gathering in the weekly assembly hour in this hall, thousands of AUC graduates must have read and mused on the meanings of these words. Faculty and administration were brought together in the mission of the university unified in the purpose of this academic institution: to allow for knowledge to grow from more to more. Less clear was the purpose of ‘reverence’ pursued as the Schools of Science and Business evolved over the years. But still the words reverberated in the majestic air of the hall as it bore witness to the many graduating seniors for over ninety years--until the move to the new campus, that is!

The move to the New Cairo Campus was triggered in many ways by the need to establish AUC on an equal footing with the new private universities of the late 1990s, and with it came a new motto to celebrate the move to the new world. What could be more appropriate than the words of American writer, futurist, and businessman Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970): “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” (p. 414).

Ironically, this motto, unlike its predecessor, was not inscribed in stone; and if you were not around at the time, you might not have even known that it was the chosen one! Search for it today and you will probably not find it on the pages of the AUC webpage or be able to trace it to the many dysfunctional web pages that now return ‘error 404’ in response to your search. But that doesn’t mean that it has not shaped and continues to shape the institution’s future. No conversation about the centennial can afford not to start from this point.

In my opening lecture for RHET 1010 on rhetoric, I give my students both mottos and ask them to reflect on their possible implications: on what it means for the kind of ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ that takes place, the modality of learning used by both, and what either says about them as the recipients of this knowledge.

 

Two (incompatible) world views:

Whereas the knowledge of the first promised an ‘organic’ growth where we become one with what we know, the second holds no such promise. We are ‘literate’ as long as we retain the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Once we lose this flexibility, we cease to be literate.

What a world of difference it is to have knowledge that feeds and nurtures us, allowing us to grow and keeping our integrity intact, and another kind that can be ‘unlearnt’ to make way for new ‘knowledge’ to replace it. What is that ‘learning’ that can be ‘unlearnt’? Is there such a possibility? Was it ever real ‘learning’ in the first place? Perhaps if we consider ourselves a non-stick container where quantifiable amounts of learning can be added, emptied, and re-filled according to the whims of the times? Is any growth then possible or does our capacity diminish with time? Maybe a weariness sets in after so many deletions and letting go of things we once thought were important and acted upon only to be told they were no longer valid or true. And once the old hardware is incompatible with the new systems, even the ability to relearn will abruptly stop functioning, a sort of self-induced dementia.

 

Paradise Lost

Lord Tennyson’s verses that describe the past tellingly follow two stanzas from “In Memoriam” (Settle, 2007), yet they seem to describe our present future trajectory:

 

   Our little systems have their day;

   They have their day and cease to be:

   They are but broken lights of thee,

   And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

 

   We have but faith: we cannot know;

   For knowledge is of things we see

   And yet we trust it comes from thee,

   A beam in darkness: let it grow. (p. 25)

 

Toffler’s words have also to be read within the context of the Future Shock (1970) they were thought of:

Yet just as there are limits on how much sensory input we can accept, there are in-built constraints on our ability to process information. In the words of psychologist George A. Miller of Rockefeller University, there are "severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember." By classifying information, by abstracting and "coding" it in various ways, we manage to stretch these limits, yet ample evidence demonstrates that our capabilities are finite.

To discover these outer limits, psychologists and communications theorists have set about testing what they call the "channel capacity" of the human organism. For the purpose of these experiments, they regard man as a "channel." Information enters from the outside. It is processed. It exits in the form of actions based on decisions. The speed and accuracy of human information processing can be measured by comparing the speed of information input with the speed and accuracy of output.

Information has been defined technically and measured in terms of units called "bits."* By now, experiments have established rates for the processing involved in a wide variety of tasks from reading, typing, and playing the piano to manipulating dials or doing mental arithmetic. And while researchers differ as to the exact figures, they strongly agree on two basic principles: first, that man has limited capacity; and second, that overloading the system leads to serious breakdown of performance. (p. 181)

So, what is it that we lose and what is it we gain when we change our motto?

 

References

Settle, D. (2007). Faith, Hope, and Love through Doubt in Tennyson’s In Memoriam (Master’s thesis). Grand Valley State University, Michigan, US.

Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random