THE IMPORTANCE OF GENERAL KNOWLEDGE AND DISCIPLINE-SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE
Although setting the author and extra-textual details aside empowers the reader to make meaning of a text, it does not automatically validate every interpretation of a text. A reader’s ability to comprehend a text depends upon what a reader knows about the topic. Usually, shared general background knowledge is enough. However, sometimes a text is intended for a particular audience – a training manual for automobile mechanics, say, or an opinion piece about pedagogy for a group of college instructors – so discipline-specific content knowledge is required. (Of course, the same holds true for authors wishing to write for either general or particular audiences in the first place.)
Without knowledge of the topic at hand, the reading (as some might say) will be “flat.”
Here is another way of saying this: responsible readers (and authors!) are sure to situate their interpretations within standards that govern reasonable, adult-level discourse and/or the standards of a particular discipline.
Let’s take this down a notch by referencing a fairly well-known demonstration of the importance of background knowledge in comprehension.
Once a jolly swagman camped beside a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he sat and waited while his billy boiled,
“You’ll come a’waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Some of you may have been singing this song without ever comprehending it. It is not about a man who wishes to dance with a woman named Matilda; rather, it is about a hobo (swagman) camping beside a pond (billabong) beneath a eucalyptus (coolibah) tree, boiling tea in a can (billy) and singing that someone will go on a day-hike (a’waltzing Matilda) with him. (Of course, the explanation of this song assumes that you already know the definitions of even more words!) You were able to decode the words/symbols in the song – this is English – but you were unable to comprehend the meaning of the text.
Readers and authors who lack either shared general background or discipline-specific knowledge invariably fall short of their goals: they are lost and confused in a world of texts (and everything is a text) where so much of what is meant and makes meaningful sense has to be inferred or implied. So much depends upon what readers already know. For those of us at City Colleges of Chicago, we know how the lack of such knowledge manifests in the classroom: students (and teachers) struggle to understand assigned material and to master certain skill-sets necessary for future academic and professional success. It also has a negative impact on quality of life issues.
Without substantive background knowledge and discipline-specific knowledge, a text amounts only to so many words.
(*This post – especially the demonstration re: “Waltzing Matilda” – draws upon the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.)