What is important?

Mesa_Verde_National_Park_MEVE6012In high school speech class, when required to give an informative speech, I  described the  accomplishments of the Anasazi.  My teacher, whose pre-Columbian knowledge included a vague recollection of the Aztecs asked “What’s the point of your speech?  Why are these Anasa…. whatever, people important?”

I had been to Mesa Verdi and was impressed by their ability to build adobe apartment complexes and a road system over a thousand years ago. I did not mention my admiration of the Anasazi (it was not a persuasive speech) but detailed the advancements of this now defunct civilization. Essentially the teacher was asking a version of students’ perennial query “Why do I need to know this?” Even though it was an informative speech I should have voiced my opinion, but this probably would not have made any difference to my teacher.

I discovered that “importance” is really subjective – based on individual views. Instructors who despair because students seem unable to pinpoint valuable information within the overwhelming mass of data on the Internet must remember this. I tended to take a classicist view that compared people and events throughout time to create an understanding of the nature of mankind. My speech teacher wanted to know what made a difference to his current world. Students need to consider the different kinds of importance.  Classic knowledge, which can be more widely applied, deals with general information.  That which is new or currently important tends to provide information  for completing one particular task, or solving a very specific problem.

general copy

                              Current Information                       Classic Information

specific copy

Measuring importance requires learning to balance the latest news with that which has proven useful over generations. The Internet is an excellent place to find trendy things – a popular new fashion, escapades of a performer, the latest gross/scary news story, or a review of the newest mobile device. Each of those has a momentary importance – fading from view within a few days to a year. However, sites like Project Gutenberg have transformed the Internet into a kind of Library of Alexandria that allows people to view books that existed centuries ago.

As  I watch our society’s mad dash for the cutting edge, I find a particular quote by C.S. Lewis to be quite applicable to the dilemma of determining relevance of events as they occur (Even though it was written concerning newspapers – not the Internet).

“Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.”

Photo from National Park Digital Archives
Quote from Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1955 p.159

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