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.
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