Today’s “research” finding

See Tuesday’s entry for my “research” subject!

I was watching a PBS program on Afghanistan tonight and I realized how little I really know about the world. The program was about the constitutional convention held in late 2003, which ought to be old news to me at this point but wasn’t. I spend a lot of time each day reading the news, but I’m not truly well-informed. Names, places, and events go in one ear and out the other, or rather, I read them and they don’t stick, since my primary news source these days is the internet.

Lately, the discrepancy between how well-informed I ought to be – as a historian, as an educated person, as someone who describes herself as interested in current events – and how little I actually know has been seriously irking me. The other night in our apartment, after spending hours (really, hours) online catching up on blogs and news feeds, I realized how little of what I’d read I’d truly internalized. So I got up from the computer and went to the kitchen to wash dishes, but asked Erik to bring his laptop in with me. He found me a web broadcast of the BBC world report, and propped the open laptop up on the fridge next to the sink. So as I scrubbed plates and rinsed glasses, I listened to a survivor of the Mumbai train bombings describe his experience. While I wiped the counters and dining table, I heard two experts weigh in on Tony Blair’s announcement that Britain would be using more nuclear power. It occurred to me that I’m much better at retaining factual information when I hear it than when I read it (stories are a different matter; I can remember whole sentences of those verbatim after reading them), so I have decided that soon I will get a proper radio for the kitchen. This will help my own speaking abilities as well, no doubt, which I need if I’m really going to continue with those audio posts I did months ago.

As well, Erik and I were talking this past weekend about the way I understand things. Unlike him, and unlike many other academics, it’s not really in my nature to dig to the heart of new things. You can tell one of them, “Israel has just bombed Lebanon,” and they will immediately throw questions at you: “When? Who started it? What justification did they give?” They want to know why and how and what’s going on, and they won’t feel comfortable until they find out. On the contrary, tell me this, and I respond, “Oh no!” but it doesn’t go much farther than that. My response tends to be more emotional than intellectual, and until recently, I’ve been comfortable with that. But over the past couple of years I’ve been noticing the shortcomings of this mindset, noticing, really, that these shortcomings have been affecting me for years. I’m so good, I think, at sounding like I know what’s going on, that no one – including myself – has ever really questioned whether I really do (well, at least not to my face they haven’t!). A lot of the time, I’m pretty clueless; what I seem to comprehend fully, I only understand vaguely, and this shows when I’m pressed for explanation. It’s like when you understand a word in context, but when someone asks you the definition, you find you have only the faintest idea. My knowledge of current events is like that, but worse still, so is my knowledge of a lot of subjects – including things I’m supposed to know quite well, like certain periods of American history.

This happy-go-lucky attitude toward understanding and seeking information has got to stop. If I’m going to continue through life as any kind of thinking person at all, I can’t keep on only scratching the surface of everything I learn. This doesn’t have to mean that I’ll never let anything go from now on until I’ve gotten to the bottom of it – I still think, as I always have, that people who ask a lot of unnecessary questions are annoying – but it’s going to be up to me in the future to be alert to my own tendencies, and to learn to recognize the difference between real understanding and superficial knowledge.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]