Things Worth Knowing

Friday August 7, 2009


A few weeks ago, I was cooking dinner whilst listening, albeit somewhat distractedly, to the radio news in the background, when I heard an outraged individual – I think, but I cannot be sure, that it was a Tory MP – in the middle of a debate on education, proclaim in richly plummy tones, “It is appalling: most schoolchildren in this country don’t even know the date of the battle of Trafalgar!”

I continued stirring the onions on the hob (nicely spiced with ground coriander and a sprinkling of cumin – it was a curry night at the thinkBuddha HQ), and reflected on how I, too, was ignorant in that particular respect. As I tried to recollect what scraps of knowledge I possessed concerning the aforesaid battle, I realised that it was a fairly sorry picture that started to emerge. I had a vague intuition that Horatio Nelson was involved, that he had one arm and one eye, but that, unlike Long John Silver, he had two legs – meaning that he could run perfectly well, but that depth perception and juggling would have been difficult for him. Nelson, I also reminded myself (at least as far as I could recall) did not have a parrot on his shoulder. And he had a friend called Hardy who kissed him. Chastely, I imagined. Beyond that, I was beginning to struggle. Yet the voices wafting from the radio were suggesting that this was an important – nay, a vital – part of my British heritage (whatever that might be), and that my not knowing such a thing was a state-of-affairs bordering on the scandalous.

I turned off the radio, and went back to my onions (a dash of turmeric , some chopped fresh green chilli, then in went the chopped tomatoes…), and as I stirred the pan, I found myself reflecting on the attitude that we have to knowledge. The date of the battle, for what it is worth, was October 21st, 1805. Perhaps I knew this piece of information once and forgot it. Or perhaps I simply omitted to learn it in the first place. Certainly, by next week, I will have forgotten it again, for the simple reason that I am, alas, not greatly interested in the battle of Trafalgar. And whilst for some – naval officers, nineteenth century historians, Tory MPs and the like – knowledge of the exact date of the battle of Trafalgar may seem to be a key part of one’s moral existence, an anchor point within this world of flux, for me it is just another date of just another battle, of which there have been rather too many to count throughout history.

But what troubled me about the interview on the radio was the shrill tone of condemnation. All too frequently, in debates such as this, the absence of a certain piece of knowledge is taken as a sign of shocking ignorance: from Tory MPs protesting that schoolchildren cannot recite the date of the battle of Trafalgar, to clergymen bemoaning the fact that only a tiny percentage of the population can remember by heart the ten commandments, to scientists lamenting that the general public are largely ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics. And I am guilty of making the same claims myself. “Really?” I hear myself saying, “You don’t even know that…?”

The trouble with all of these complaints is that – as I think Zhuangzi once pointed out – the possible objects of knowledge are unlimited, but the things that we can know are, in the end, limited. And the question of the kinds of knowledge that matter – the question of what kinds of things are worth knowing – is not one that is easy to answer. In part, of course, it is contextual. Sure, I am ignorant when it comes to the battle of Trafalgar. But that is because, in the vast sea of possible objects of knowledge, I haven’t exactly been fishing in the same waters as those military historians and Tory MPs and the like. We are, all of us, utterly ignorant when it comes to most of what is out there. But at the same time we, all of us, know all kinds of amazing stuff. What we lazily term other people’s ‘ignorance’, more often than not may simply be the fact that other people judge different things worth knowing, because they exist in different contexts from our own. There are things that I care about and know a bit about (off the top of my head, here are a few: how to cook a pretty fine curry; how to play the classical guitar passably well; the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; Buddhism; the novels of Italo Calvino; the theory of evolution), and other things about which I am largely ignorant. But it would be an impoverished – not to say a pretty weird – world if I insisted that everybody should hold the same things as personally worth knowing that I hold as personally worth knowing.

And herein lies the problem. Given the innumerability of the objects of knowledge, establishing if there are things that are worth knowing for everyone, and establishing what these things are is a difficult process (but see some thoughts here from a post that I wrote around four years ago). Nevertheless, just for the time being, I want to leave this question to the educationalists and policy makers, and to ask another question, a question that I think is often overlooked: the question of what exactly we do with the things that we deem worth knowing.

Here, I think, things become more interesting, because this question forces us to deal with the ethics of our relationship with those things that we know, or that we claim to know. Because it seems to me to be more important, in the long run, that we should treat each other well, than that we should know any particular facts about battles, commandments or laws of nature. And it seems to me to be more important that we use what knowledge we have in the service of treating each other well, than that we should know things simply so that we can use them to pour scorn, to manipulate, or to condemn.

To shift the focus from asking about the kinds of knowledge that matter to asking about how we deal with the ethics of our relationship to the things we know, is to let all kinds of questions back into the debate that are otherwise pushed to the sidelines. And as we start to explore these ethical questions about how it is that we go about knowing, I can’t help thinking that it might be possible to open up a space for something that – in all of our concern with knowledge and with what is termed (terrifyingly) the ‘knowledge economy’ – we have forgotten how to think about: the possibility not just of knowlege, but of wisdom.

# · Manuel Batsching

Dear Will, thank you for your inspiring post! I am with you, when you say, that it seems far more important to know for example, how to use your knowledge in a way, that most of us would consider as morally good, rather than only have the knowledge of particular facts. But I tend to think, that knowledge of facts plays an important role in gaining this ability. It seems obvious, that a good educational background (including maybe the knowledge of a foreign language) is a mean of developing reflected opinions and attitudes about the world and the people around you. That for example may help to defend your mind from prejudice and myopia.
But of course I don’t think, that this educational background is a certain canon of facts, that you ought learn. I don’t think that one can point out a particular set of facts that are necessary to know for being a (morally) better human. I rather think that it might be more like a indefinite cluster of facts, of which you gain knowledge if you stay interested and keep asking.
Based on this idea one may distinguish a weak and a strong understanding of “worth knowing”. A strong sense would be, that it is definitely better for you to know a certain fact in a certain context. For example the date of the battle of Trafalgar is in a strong sense worth knowing for the schoolchildren who have a history exam about the 19th century the next day. (Apart from these special contexts it is definitely not easy to imagine how this particular fact could be worth knowing in a strong sense for them.) For them knowing this fact is necessary (at least they really really ought to know), if they want to make sure, that they are successful in this context.
A weak sense of “worth knowing” could be then, that the fact in question joins the cluster of your educational background and extends it by doing so. Even if I can’t give an example of how the Date of the Trafalgar battle may play a role in gaining an important attitude (because I consider this an extremely complicated process) it is at least logically possible that it does. And this possibility makes in my opinion, knowing such things not necessary, but I consider them as worth knowing (in a weak sense) independently of any context.
(I hope you don’t mind, if my English may be a little strange.)

# · Nagapriya

Hi Will

An elegant, insouciant post. It seems that there is now so much information that we can potentially remember that it is probably impossible to hope that we are all going to know dates such as the Battle of Trafalgar (which I knew nothing about either). The volume of available knowledge seems to increase day by day and I guess it raises serious questions about what information we can realistically retain.

# · Will

Thanks, Nagapriya. I confess that I have a particularly bad head for dates.

I like your distinction between the strong and weak sense of “worth knowing”, Manuel, and particularly how you tie the weak sense of this into a pre-existing cluster or web of knowledge. This is, I think, the only way that the things we learn have any hope of sticking. I also agree that it is perfectly possible that knowledge of the date of the battle of Trafalgar may link in with this kind of cluster of knowledge, and may have some larger value. But I’m not sure that I’d place the kind of value on it that was being suggested in that news item, and not for the same kinds of reasons. There is a recognition of this value of knowledge in the idea that the bodhisattva masters the arts and sciences – philosophy, logic, grammar, medicine and the technical arts and crafts; but in this scheme, of course, it is already set within an ethical orientation.

All the best,


# · marc

as thich nhat hanh was saying recently “ meditation should be teached at school…”

# · marc

sorry , should be taught ( one thing worth knowing!)

# · James

I’m new to this blog, but that was an excellent post; very thought provoking.


# · Robert Ellis

An interesting article, Will: I do agree that the moral value of possessing certain bits of factual knowledge can’t be completely specified in advance. However, that doesn’t imply that it can’t be provisionally specified in advance, nor that living in certain cultural contexts doesn’t make certain bits of factual knowledge important. I think there might be another possible point to what the Tory MP might have been saying that you seem to have missed, which is about cultural alienation.

The date of the Battle of Trafalgar is not especially important for most practical actions, but it is a kind of cultural marker, given that the central square of your nation’s capital happens to be named after it, with a column featuring Nelson in the middle. You don’t have to believe in the justification of the British military actions, or jingoistically celebrate them, to recognise and engage in them for cultural reasons. It’s comparable, say, to understanding the difference between Methodists and Baptists: I find such understanding important because it supports a functioning relationship with the culture I grew up in and still live in, despite the fact that I’m neither a Methodist nor a Baptist.

Deliberate rejection of such basic cultural knowledge appears on the face of it to involve to some extent alienating oneself from one’s own culture and society. One can try to create, or participate in, counter-cultures instead, but investing in these as an alternative, rather than contributing to incremental change in the main culture, seems to me to create unnecessary conflict and alienation. We ought to at least know the date of the Battle of Trafalgar if we want to engage with the Tory MP, and help him recognise that there may be other important things he ought to know that he is ignorant of.

# · Will

It may be possible to provisionally specify in advance what kinds of knowledge might be more or less useful (for example, I’m not sure that the nation’s schoolchildren need to be drilled extensively on the contents of my sock-drawer), although this specifying-in-advance is not just a response to a particular cultural context, but it is also an attempt to create a particular cultural context along particular lines that one thinks are important.

I’m puzzled by the idea that not knowing the date of the battle of Trafalgar might be courting alienation. One would have to ask – as culture is not monolithic – alientation (if it is alientation at all) from which particular aspect of culture? And one would also have to ask what level of knowing is desirable here. Is it enough to know that the battle of Trafalgar happened a long time ago and was something to do with that bloke in Trafalgar square? Or to know that it took place in the early nineteenth Century? Or to know that it took place in 1805? Or to know what Nelson had for breakfast on the morning of the battle? (Apparently it was bagels.)

I am certainly not talking about the deliberate rejection of knowledge. But whether this is “basic cultural knowledge” depends, to a large degree, on who you are talking to. Of course, if I decided to hang out with Tory MPs, then I’d do my homework on Nelson. But day-to-day (at least when this discussion fades into the past) I’ll probably find that it is something that doesn’t appear to be basic cultural knowledge for the contexts in which I find myself, and so in all likelihood, I’ll slowly forget it.

I think my disagreement here is with your distinction between a single “main” culture and a multiplicity of “counter-cultures”. I’m not sure that it is like this. I’d rather see things in terms of a huge number of overlapping cultures, with various centres of gravity, all of them in constant motion and in constant debate. I’m as suspicious of claims to being “counter-cultural” as I am of claims to represent a “core” culture.

# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will, I do agree with you that we can’t be too precise in advance about the exact level of knowledge that we would need to engage in our cultural context. I’d also agree that a ‘culture’ isn’t a monolith. However, neither a model of one culture nor a model of many can completely correspond to the complex reality of culture, and to impose one of those models would just be dogmatic. Perhaps we are actually in agreement, or perhaps I have caught you giving a little bit too much emphasis in denial of the shaping effects of a central and powerful political culture.

You may not hang out with Tory MPs from day-to-day, but cultures have much more extended and subtle interactions than that on the internet. How do you know that a Tory MP isn’t reading your blog?

There also seems to be something peculiarly English (and I mean English here, not British) about finding knowledge of our national culture peripheral, that in my experience applies to few if any other nations. Are there any American readers who don’t know the date of the Declaration of Independence, or Russians who don’t know the date of the Battle of Stalingrad? There seems to be some respect in which the educated middle-class white English (a category in which I’d put myself) often like to think of themselves as culturally neutral, and in that lies possible self-delusion and a degree of alienation.

# · Will

To be sure, Robert, the streams of culture are complex and interlaced. And in all of this complexity, there are no doubt the shaping effects of what might be called “centralised” political cultures to be taken into account. But there are all kinds of shaping effects, many of them far less explicit than politically centralised attempts to promote particular values. So I think that it is very, very hard indeed to tell how, and to what extent, one is being shaped (this was why I loved studying anthropology, because it brought home to me at least some of the extent of this shaping). And also, it is hard to say to what extent these “centralised” cultures are themselves being shaped by other cultural streams.

As a result, the idea that one could be “culturally neutral” is one that makes no more sense to me than it seems to make to you. Nobody is culturally neutral, because we are all caught of shifting webs in culture that are vaster and more extensive than we can possibly understand (although it’s worth having a stab at it – I’m not advocating giving up all attempts at understanding). Having culture is as much a part of being human as having a liver or a pair of lungs.

But I’m still puzzled about how one might define “national culture”, if one is not to do it descriptively. But taken descriptively, it might turn out that part of this description went something like “one curious aspect of English culture is that the majority of folks are not tremendously interested in the dates of historical battles.” Now one may then say, “Oh, but that’s bad! One should be tremendously interested in these things!” And one might then attempt to stimulate interest in these things. So one might then say that national culture now involved both the majority of folks not being interested in these things, and a minority of folks arguing – for reasons good or bad – that they should be interested in these things. Nobody in this picture, as far as I can see, is alienated from culture. And as long as they do not remain too alienated from each other, then there’s a chance that all the people involved in this discussion might at least be able to communicate what they think is important and why. That, at least, is a start.

As for the question of who reads this blog, all kinds of folks seem to. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was the occasional MP of one stripe or another in the mix. If so, then hello and welcome!

# · Robert Ellis

Ah, now the philosophical disagreement is becoming a bit clearer. Rejecting the fact-value distinction, I wouldn’t attempt to define anything descriptively, because to do so denies the unavoidable prescription that accompanies all definitions. Definitions need some connection with our experience of the thing defined to be relevant, but they are just as much about values and the direction we want to push our response to what we are defining.

In the case of ‘national culture’, I’d say that what we can directly observe from the behaviour of the people of a nation is only one aspect of it. National culture is also a set of values that helps to form people’s identities: not just what people say about flags, statues, battles and other such symbolically potent things, but the ways in which they have been shaped by them through family, society, and media.

Unfortunately those identities are often exclusive and corporately egoistic, which makes it tempting to try to push national identity away. But to deny national cultural identifications is a bit like denying one’s ego: it is part of one, and its recognition is the basis of further progress. So, I think a morally justifiable pragmatic definition of national culture is to think of it as an iceberg-like phenomenon extending far beneath the surface and shaping our values, so that, beginning with the recognition of its full effect on our lives, we can begin to transform its influence into something less exclusive.

# · Will

Indeed, Robert. Description always involves prescription. I’ll go with that. My descriptions are always shaped by all kinds of values – the lurking part of the iceberg that you talk about. But once again, I think that the task is nevertheless one of description if we want to make a case for saying that we have been shaped by all the things you mention (even if we don’t know that we have been shaped by them). To say that the task is descriptive is not to deny that our descriptions may well be shaped in this way. And if we want to transform the influence of all of that which lurks beneath the surface (remembering that this is not all bad – the image of lurking icebergs is one that suggests fear, but much of what lies beneath is perhaps also beneficial), it will help to find ways of describing what precisely these things are.

To go back to my original post, my problem was the implication that knowledge of the date of one particular battle in history should be a necessary part of one’s identity. And one might here be able to draw a distinction between “active” identity – those things we say we identify with and (not sure this is the right term) “passive” identity – those things that we don’t really talk or think about, but that shape us nonetheless. Passively, certain views, attitudes and so on that are themselves shaped by this particular battle may also shape us today, even if we are not actively aware of the date. Often the argument about national values is about explicit knowledge, rather than this kind of shaping. But knowing the dates of battles does not necessarily mean that we will know the more complex ways in which these attitudes and values in turn shape us. And certainly, I think, we are looking towards the same end: I'm all for transforming the influence of these things at least a little for the better, if we can.

And so I’m really not sure that we are in philosophical disagreement here. Or maybe we are. But I’m on holiday and quite fancy an ice-cream. So I’ll leave it here for the time being and go and see what Brussels has to offer.

All the best, and thanks again for your thoughts and comments.


# · Bob Sullivan

I think that the things most worth knowing in life are the things that distinguish man’s apparent relative significance to the things that appear around him, and also the capacities for experience that highlight the inner perceptual abilitities, comprehension abilities and so forth.

Knowledge of these together I think would lead to something of incredible value.

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