“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
I’d like to do a 360 on that time-worn adage: “A lot of knowledge is a wonderful thing.”
It all started many years ago as I engaged my teenage daughter in a pep talk about school and its importance.
In our little talk, which on reflection was more akin to a monologue by me, we not only discussed the critical importance of education but of knowledge itself. I offered three reasons why knowledge would have profound affects on her entire life. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is liberating. Knowledge is enrichening.
I explained how important knowledge and education are to future success in a career, how it would ensure her independence and self-reliance, and then how it would make her entire life more interesting and fulfilling.
At that point, it struck me that I had placed the life-enrichening value of knowledge last—when I probably should have ranked it first.
Society has conditioned us to believe the primary reason for education is to secure a good job. While it’s normal for us, as parents, to want a lifestyle for our children that’s as good or better than ours—which means going to good schools and getting good grades and ending up in a high-paying, rewarding career—we might overlook some of the fundamental benefits of a good education, whether formal or informal.
A deeper view: I offered my daughter an example. When I used to do fieldwork for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I’d often go on walks with a biologist who could identify virtually every flower, plant, grass, sedge, shrub, and tree by both their common and Latin names. He knew if they had medicinal value. He knew if they were edible or poisonous. He knew which plants flowered, and when. During his walk he took in a much larger, more complex world than I. In summary, I think his view of the natural world and all the things in it was much deeper, richer than mine.
I also told her about a friend, a bird biologist, who was as good at identifying avian creatures by sound as by sight. When I walked through woods or alpine tundra I heard a confused cacophony of bird chirps and calls. He heard each call individually, no matter how many there were, and could determine if they related to a species territory, mating, aggression, or other behaviors. Over the years he had tuned his ear to hear birds from great distances. It’s abundantly clear his walk was richer than mine.
Any scientist, even physicists who study sub-atomic particles, will tell you there is beauty and majesty in complexity. But scientific knowledge is just one avenue, I told her. The well of art, music, and literature is infinitely deep.
As my daughter grew, it was gratifying to see her beginning to understand the richness found in music and literature, and that the deeper you probe, the deeper you want to probe. When she talked about books she had read or reports she’d prepared, I was hearing someone looking for subtleties – the hidden, unspoken meanings.
When I listened to her play the piano, I could tell she was learning to distinguish between what was elemental from what had richness and resonance. Because my mother was a music teacher for nearly half a century, I offered my daughter the same advice as she: music will become a friend that will stay with you for a lifetime. Music is knowledge.
Of course, what I considered to be real-life examples probably seemed abstract to a teenager. We can tell our kids that they will someday use nearly every piece of knowledge they ever acquire, but they won’t buy it. I know I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever use Algebra. Years later, when I was trying to lay tile in my kitchen, I understood…or when I tried using ratio and proportion to build a cabin.
History, I once thought, was a complete waste of time. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realized how much the past teaches us about the present, and even the future. Historians, I now believe, are some of the wisest people around.
From information to knowledge: Somewhere in this discussion with my daughter, I could tell there might be some confusion between information and knowledge. Today’s students have access to much greater volumes of information than my generation ever did, primarily through the internet. I use the term “access” because much information is transferred rather than studied, reflected upon, and absorbed.
I told my daughter that information isn’t really knowledge until it’s applied in some context or experience that relates to other experiences or situations. Knowledge comes when you understand the informational relationships and form conclusions or hypotheses. By this time, her eyes are glazing over.
Then I took a different tack… going straight to a subject I knew she loved, “Do you know much about horses?”
“I think so,” she said.
“Would you like to learn more?”
She answered tentatively, “Yes?”
“Because it would be fun.”
I spurred, “Why?”
“I don’t know…because it’s something I like.”
“That’s right,” I affirmed, “and the more you know about it, the more you’ll appreciate it…and more you learn about one thing, the more you’ll want to learn about another.”
I got her to agree on that point and left it there. This is a conversation we would have many times.
I’ve met many people who through self-teaching became wise beyond any formal education they received. They were blessed with an innate curiosity that relentlessly drove them to ask questions, search for answers, and ask more questions.
Back in the post-glaciation epoch before television or internet or video games, kids like me would read books like the encyclopedia, maybe beginning with the letter A or B, and just read. Pure curiosity.
I hope that today’s youth, armed with modern information access tools, possess a robust hunger for knowledge, a basic curiosity. With knowledge, their lives will become ever so much richer. With knowledge, they’ll have an opportunity to become successful in a given career field. With knowledge, they’ll be in a position to help make the world a better place. With knowledge, their lives will be more fulfilling.