Will social distancing destroy tacit knowledge?

I sit here writing this post because my computer is malfunctioning. Earlier today I had a zoom meeting with colleagues, and our discussion turned to whether we’d meet this year at our yearly Summer conference. The outlook for that is not good.

That got me thinking about the importance of meeting face-to-face. How much will be lost if we live in a prolonged state of social distancing? In my view a tremendous amount would be lost.

Just think of the knowledge gaps that will begin to accrue. We are social creatures and our brains are designed to learn by doing and copying those who have achieved mastery of a skill. As the famed philosopher Michael Polyani stated: “By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of art, including those which are not explicitly known the master himself.”

Learning is thus an art dependent on trust, habit and action. Also, this era of remote work and electronic communications will encourage our misguided digital-era instinct to fetishize information as rational and objective and thus removed from personal experience. The tacit, unspoken art of knowledge according to Polyani cannot be removed from knowledge. As he said: “deprived of their tacit coefficients, all spoken words, formulae, all maps and graphs, are strictly meaningless.”

I’m about to try to restart my computer to engage my Regulation and Compliance students on a collaborative writing project we have undertaken regarding COVID-19. This writing project is my refusal to allow the current crisis to dictate what I view as the best modes of learning. That is, a process whereby my students and I learn through personal and collaborative exploration, reflection, discussion, and participation.

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