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November 13, 2012

It’s not what you know

There needs to be greater respect for different kinds of knowledge in the Information Age.

I’ve been thinking lately about an instructor I had in junior high. He retired earlier this year, and I still consider him, after all these years, the most influential teacher I’ve ever had. He would often scrawl three important “words to know”—always in all caps—on the blackboard: “DISCREET”, “SKEPTICAL”, “ERUDITE”.

Almost 10 years later, these words are still in my mind, imprinted fresh with white chalk. I hope I’ve lived up to them over the course of my education. But situating these mantras (as they seem to be in retrospect) within my current educational context is a thorny and disconcerting task.

I came across a recent article in The Chronicle that bemoaned the loss of “being learned” among the writers and artists of our generation. As author Matthew Gasda puts it:

“Graduate students in the humanities had a similar sensibility: You pick a microtopic (say, book production in 17th-century Tunisia) and spend five years researching the hell out of it. Debaters (I was an active debater) I met from top colleges were similarly narrow in their interests. You learn law, politics, a little ethics, and you make sure to debate what you know on your terms as often as possible.”

And in praise of an interview with Jack Gilbert in The Paris Review, Gasda writes:

“The interview reveals a deep appetite for knowledge: carnal, religious, rational, aesthetic. Gilbert’s example is part of the archetype I want to revive: a person of letters and action who reads widely, travels everywhere, and copulates with only moderate discretion.

Our contemporary notions of writing seem to include little more than being funny; being a good commentator, a detached observer; and maybe not traveling much farther than the workshop.”

Ouch, I guess. What a scathing critique of the current educational and cultural milieu! I can just imagine Gasda itching to type: Look at all you philistines posing as great thinkers. You cannot hide behind your co-ops and community art collectives and coffee shop witticisms.

These sentiments are certainly not unique to Gasda. The irony, of course, is that he name-drops like the best of them: James Joyce and William Gaddis make cameos in the piece written with that breezily punchy, reference-laden style that pervades today’s public discourse, and which may be necessary for engaging contemporary audiences. Despite its flaws though, his argument poses important questions: What happened to the “Renaissance man?” To erudition? To, in Gasda’s terms, “being learned?”

We are currently engaged in a crisis of faith in knowledge. Popular media and academia alike reflect endlessly on the impact of the “Information Age”—on the way we think, relate, act. We like the idea of knowledge in the abstract, without truly interrogating the limitations that contemporary society imposes on our traditional conception of it. It seems to me that our expectations for the ideal informed and critical citizen are more often than not profoundly contradictory.

Let’s try this exercise: Think of one person you truly respect as exceptionally knowledgeable (or imagine one, if no one comes to mind). What kind of person did you envision? Is this person up-to-date on current events and exceptionally culturally literate—a pundit-in-training? Or well-versed in the concepts and arguments posed in the classical texts, able to readily apply them to the task of examining the world? Maybe a specialist, who knows everything there is to know about her one passion? Perhaps all of the above?

Which one constitutes “real” knowledge? “Useful” knowledge? I pose these questions with no intention of answering them; what is troubling to me is that so many people today, without realizing it, create a rigid hierarchy of knowledge. One type, many seem to believe, is inherently more legitimate than another. Popular culture is dumbed-down opiate for the masses; journalism is sensational, factually incorrect drivel; academic writing is esoteric babble, and so forth. Sometimes attacks are generational—it’s always the youth who are wasting away intellectually and morally—so the discussion today often centers on why the Internet and social media are making us all attention-deficit, attention-seeking, and just plain stupid.

So often I encounter such zealous disdain for those who do not know something “obvious”—disdain which comes from people who prioritize one type of knowledge. The get-with-the-canon condescension: I can’t believe you haven’t read Plato’s Republic! You go to the U of C, for God’s sake! Or the categorical dismissal: Humanities majors don’t have anything to contribute to the pursuit of truth. All they talk about are feelings. And my personal favorite, the “what-rock-have-you-been-living-under” disbelief: How did you not hear about Romney’s gaffe from last night’s debate? 

The politics of knowledge are increasingly vital but grossly unexamined. People come from different backgrounds and have access to and value different kinds of knowledge throughout their lives. It’s an incredibly obvious point in theory, but so often neglected in practice; it’s a neglect which leads to unthinking antagonism. In reality, to be at once every type of “knowledgeable” person—the pundit, the academic, the specialist—is simply impossible.

Consider our lives at the U of C; consider how much we are expected to know and how little time we truly have to learn. Everyone I know here runs around like an automaton unglued, flitting from one important enterprise to another. How could we squeeze more than we already do out of the time we’ve been allotted? We live in an age and go to a university where the dominant ethical imperative is to be productive, to constantly be absorbing new information in order to understand the world around us. To do otherwise somehow seems antithetical to the spirit of the U of C (this belief has its own problematic aspects, but that’s for another column).

The beauty of discreet and skeptical and erudite—so cleanly written on the blackboard—is that they are not so clearly defined after all. Ultimately, an education should not be about the ownership of knowledge, but its pursuit.

Emily Wang is a third-year in the College majoring in English.

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