An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 80, 1 (Fall 2001) pp. 46 - 48

KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD: some misgivings

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 4/5/19

In the first scene of the movie Animal House, the camera focuses on a statue of Emil Faber, the fictional founder of a (blessedly) fictional Faber College. On the pedestal is the inscription "Knowledge Is Good." This piece of wisdom elicits chuckles simply because of its banality. Well, duuuh!!!!

Of course, that was back in 1978. Nowadays, that statement might be quite controversial in cetain circles. As a matter of fact, "rote memorization" and "factoids" are among the favorite dirty words for many education professors. Learned "postmodern" and progressive scholars in many disciplines are questioning the whole notion of facts or knowledge. Even church authorities, so often slammed for dogmatism, are coming increasingly to positions of epistemological uncertainty, or, if you wish,"learned ignorance."

On the behalf of the education professors, there can be little doubt that memorization and trivialization have far too often been used to justify stupid, lazy, and even brutal teaching. And come to think of it, maybe the postmodernists wouldn't brag about being "learned." They might be more interested in "liberation," even "empowerment." The more moderate "progressives" make a solid syllogism: If change is indeed all we mortals can expect, problem-solving skills are indeed a more appropriate focus for the curriculum than are spurious "knowledges." Both groups might intelligently argue that knowledge claims are at best pretentious, and at worst hegemonic. (This last is another dirty word, meaning dominant, coercive, exploitive, racist, sexist, homophobic, et cetera. To illustrate, I recently heard that some professor at some conference objected to the word "seminal," because it originated in masculinist hegemonism. I wonder if anybody objected to the feminine association of the word "egghead," referring to a tiresome and trifling intellectual?)

They have a good point: some skepticism about knowledge claims is justified. Official knowledges (e.g., "standards") have often been used to give the appearance of legitimacy to some pretty grubby power structures, and official accountability (e.g., "standardized tests") has often kept people from getting in and making those power structures better. And the wise of every faith, realizing pretty quickly that no one has any monopoly on truth, find dogmatic arrogance absolutely incompatible with spiritual growth. (My own denomination is so tolerant of ambiguity that we can laugh at ourselves: "One of the nice things about being an Episcopalian is that it makes no demands on either one’s politics or one’s religion.") And in truth, overambitious assertions about reality often descend to blasphemy. Even St. Paul, that theological innovator and arbiter par excellence, frequently hesitated to be too prescriptive, knowing the limitations of his own understanding. As he said, in this life, we all see as through a glass, darkly (I Cor. 13:12).

But complete skepticism is insulting. Granted, our ability to know is severely limited, but we can know enough to live pretty decent lives, if we choose to. As Sam Hausfather argues in his theoretically informed article in this issue,educational HORIZONS 80, 1 Fall 2001, any version of constructivism or progressivism or radicalism that disregards content knowledge is based on fundamental—and potentially catastrophic—misunderstandings. Hausfather is right: the question isn’t knowledge versus process, but knowledge and process—what we might call "the character of our content." The real question is: How may we do both, better?

Our other contributors in this issue have addressed different elements of this tension, from quite different points of view. They were all remarkable for their lack of dogmatism and their willingness to search for syntheses rather than turn differences into dichotomies. This issue could have been an ideological slugfest between advocates of four quite different approaches to schooling, but it wasn’t. What could have been a battle of liberal educators versus educational liberators, or a technical dispute between vocationalists and developmentalists, turned out to be a charitable exploration of how all those approaches might be combined to create something much bigger: education.

So how do I fulfill my column’s function of expressing reservations about of all this good stuff? Oh, I suppose I could argue that they were too nice; that we should always confront those who would perpetuate elitism, or, conversely, that we should furnish the mind with those knowledges which would enable anyone to join the elite. Maybe I should remind both content and process folks that our graduates can eat neither Plato nor Dewey, that "marketable" knowledges and skills are mighty important, too. Or I could point out that all these ideas are subordinate to what is so basic to Aristotle and Jefferson and the kid in your third row alike: the pursuit of happiness, or, if you wish,"self-actualization." But I think I’ll take on the whole kit ’n caboodle, instead.

Might it not be that sometimes knowledge isn’t such a good thing, after all? That the practice of freedom could do more harm than good? That jobs are a means and not an end? That happiness and self-actualization are only a fraction of what education really is, and that humility is a prerequisite to any of it?

Curiosity and Knowledge as Vices

While doing some historical research not long ago, I ran across a passage in Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Gradibus Humilitas et Superbiae (On the Steps of Humility and Pride) that, to use the vernacular, blew me away. In a good-humored, self-effacing twist untypical of the twelfth century, Bernard spends most of his ink laying out the negative steps of pride, ruefully admitting that he does so because "I can only teach what I have learned. I did not think I could fittingly describe the steps up when I know more about going down...." It would seem that Bernard has a refreshing take on how learning-by-doing really works.

Then, to my astonishment, he identifies the first step into the pit as curiosity. Whoa, now, hoss! This is completely counterintuitive to me. Like every other teacher, I relish every moment my students show curiosity and yearn for more. Heck, when I taught high school, I found myself going for weeks and even months yearning for any! I was flabbergasted, so I consulted Brother Alberic Farbolin, the novice-master at the Abbey of the Holy Spirit, a Trappist monastery outside Atlanta. The real basis of education, he reminded me, is "the centrality of self-knowledge."

Ouch. I find so many perfectly good reasons for forgetting myself that maybe I have forgotten something: only by knowing the truth about myself can I begin to learn the truth about anything else. If curiosity, or learning, or kindness, or even my job itself distracts me from self-discovery, it is all self-defeating. Bernard isn’t bashing knowledge or process or any of that; he’s needling us about our moral attention deficit disorder. Alberic writes:

[Bernard] is not concerned about a healthy human impulse to inquire into the unknown. Curiosity is a spiritual restlessness that leads a person to be negligent of the work of his own conversion. The sin of curiosity is not a danger for a person doing in-depth research into the migration patterns of sandhill cranes— that’s not something Bernard is concerned about. He is addressing himself to monks.... There is a certain mindfulness or wakefulness in which a monk lives in the realization of what he really is and who it is that loves him.

Alberic goes on:

There is a story about a group of monks in the desert who came to the Abba and said, "We have reason to believe one of the monks is being visited by a woman at night. We thought you should be informed." That evening, after night fall, the Abba paid a visit to the monk accused of unchastity. When he arrived at the monk’s cell, he knocked on the door and was invited in by the monk, who was clearly quite astonished to see the Abba at that hour. Coming in, the Abba saw a large basket in a corner and seated himself on top of it while he visited amiably with the monk. A few minutes into the conversation a knock came at the door and a large group of monks pushed their way in. They had seen the Abba go to the monk’s cell and had come to see the monk shamefaced and also to see what punishment would be meted out. Imagine their surprise when they found the Abba and the monk quietly engaged in conversation and no sign of a woman anywhere. Baffled and disappointed, they all returned to their cells and went to sleep. When they were all gone and the Abba was alone with the monk, he came down off the top of the basket, removed the lid and, addressing the woman inside, said she could now return to her home. Following her to the door, the Abba prepared to leave himself and it appeared he would say nothing to the monk at all. And then, just before leaving, he turned to the monk and said: "Attend to yourself," bade him goodnight and returned to his cell.

By concealing the woman, the Abba helped the meddling brothers overcome a growing temptation to curiosity. When they had been dispensed with, the Abba’s message to the erring monk was exactly what he would have given the others:"Attend to yourself." The vocation of a monk is to work at his own conversion, and if each does his work, then the kingdom of God is established on the earth. (e-mail communication, 4/9/01)

Now that, I thought, is some heavy-duty wisdom. But in this article I am not addressing monks, nor even masters of novices, merely schoolteachers whose goal is a bit more modest but no less difficult: struggling with the needs of kids and the demands of society while trying to handle both the content and the process better. What might Bernard be saying to those of us in secular schools?

After some pondering, it struck me that Bernard might respond with a cheery "So what?" What he is advocating would, in religious language, be called "singleness of heart." This is the exact opposite of its evil twin, zealotry, which is much more a product of egotism than devotion. In the secular context, we might refer to singleness of heart as "sincerity." It is far beyond the character-education-word-of-the-week version of "honesty," since it is, of course, quite possible to be scrupulously honest while being totally insincere.

Sincerity is the exact opposite of what the word "sophistication" originally implied -- the ability to rationalize our stupidities and barbarities. And I wonder what our schools are doing to promote sincerity, in this broader and deeper sense, which would seem to incorporate all four curricular approaches? If our knowledge of the world distracts us from our knowledge of our selves, what good is it? Really, other than a university medievalist, who cares that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, A.D. 800? If our abilities at problem-solving enable us to "construct a reality" that is merely self-aggrandizing or self-flattering, what good is it?

Really, other than railroad engineers, who gives a damn about where one train starting in Chicago and traveling east at sixty miles per hour meets another starting in New York and traveling west at eighty miles per hour? In and of themselves, neither answer nor process nor "deep meaning" has any meaning at all. The "liberation of the masses" and even democracy itself can be self-defeating: remember the Revolutionary War Tory who said he’d much rather be ruled by one tyrant 3,000 miles away than by 3,000 tyrants one mile away! And finally, even the development of children into happy adults is only the beginning of their education.

Maybe we’re missing the whole point. If our schools’content and process do not promote and require sincere and realistic self-examination by our students and ourselves, the character of our content may only undermine what Dr. King so wisely called the content of our character.