Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Sum of All Knowledge

We are all born with a thirst for learning. Will we drown in the new sea of plenty, or will we learn how to swim?

I would be the first to admit that I'm not an average person. (Some would say "not normal" is a better description.) I'm cursed with a variety of interests that are all over the map. Why else would it be so hard to categorize this blog? One week it's politics, then religion, then movies, then books, then astronomy, then music, then technology. If anyone asks me what it's about, I have to say, "Well, pretty much everything."

It all goes back to the earliest awakenings of my intellectual curiosity--the time when my mind first got a taste for that forbidden fruit and I started plucking it from every tree I could find. I can't say my experience was typical, but I do think it illustrates something about a universal need we have to learn as we grow, to enhance ourselves to the limits of our abilities--in the words of the US Army slogan, "to be all we can be."

This hunger to know and understand things can be encouraged by a good school, but it can also flower in spite of a bad or indifferent one. I was lucky enough to have several excellent teachers in public school, though the overall institution left much to be desired. For years after I graduated I had dreams about school as a prison. Nevertheless my need to know took precedence, and found its own way if signposts were missing.

The year I turned fifteen and was in my sophomore year, I started a collection of small spiral-bound notebooks in which to record my thoughts on a variety of subjects. These notebooks were strictly extracurricular, and only incidentally overlapped with my classroom studies.

As best I can recall, my official subjects that year were American History, English, Biology, Algebra, Art, and Physical Education. By contrast, the little notebooks were titled Science, Philosophy, Politics, Music, Literature ... and maybe another one or two that have slipped my mind. I can only account for this behavior by saying that I must have felt the need to divide knowledge into categories of my own choosing, rather than those selected for me by the school, and to make room for things that were omitted from the curriculum altogether.

At that age I was beginning to feel that I'd absorbed a lot of facts, and I wanted to start doing something with them, to organize them and try to make sense of it all. My reading extended past the limits of single subjects, so ...

  • I couldn't focus on biology to the exclusion of the rest of science, especially with my imagination being piqued by the great quantity of science fiction I was consuming, and with the country in the midst of the "space race."
  • The course titled "English" was too bogged down in remedial grammar and had not enough room for great books in it. So I supplemented it by submitting writing assignments to another teacher who was receptive to them, and by adopting his classes' challenge to read as many books as possible by an author of our choice (mine was Faulkner).
  • American History--in which the world began in 1776, or at any rate no earlier than 1492, and which emphasized propaganda against Communism--excluded too much of interest, such as ancient Egypt, the Roman empire, Celtic Europe, and the entire Orient.
  • Philosophy being entirely absent from school, along with religion, I had to fend for myself. But this I was quite prepared to do. Unitarian church school had already acquainted me with comparative religion, and I was a staunch fan of Alan Watts' weekly TV program about Zen and other Eastern traditions. The summer after tenth grade I absorbed The Story of Philosophy by the Durants, Will and Ariel, which gave me an overview of everyone from Socrates to the forbidding Germans of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This led me to read a book by Spinoza and to discover the French Existentialists, which led me back to literature again--the wonderful novels of Albert Camus in particular.
And so it went. I suppose the omission of any sort of mathematics from my own categories speaks for itself ... though I did have a fondness for plane geometry, and even learned how to use a slide rule (again, after school). Come to think of it, I picked up typing one summer by working my way through an old textbook that my mom had from when she was in college. And my study of music history--classical, jazz, and folk--was mostly a matter of reading the backs of record albums while I listened to them. (For an account of how I also learned to play music you can refer to this earlier article.)

Looking back, I'm a bit astounded that I actually did all this, especially because I never felt that I had a particular genius for any of these separate areas. In fact, my dad once warned me against becoming a "dilettante" with a smattering of everything and excellence in nothing. But I couldn't help it. Even on the creative side I used to agonize over whether I should devote myself to writing, painting, or music--and if music, should it be classical or folk? and if writing should it be poetry or prose? and maybe drawing or sculpture instead of painting ...

Few of us can be the kind of Renaissance man that Leonardo was, but why should we have to exclude from our lives anything that is of interest? I long ago gave up any idea of becoming a scientist or an engineer, but that doesn't mean I can't keep up with technology and the latest theories of cosmology, especially when the information is now so freely available.

I've described what I was able to do with the resources I had back in high school. With music I was already benefiting from the technology that let me hear much that would have been unavailable in the past when we only had live performances to listen to. Now the Internet has made such a wealth of information available in all areas that it must have an effect on us greater than the advent of the printing press.

MIT, for example, has made much of their course work available online at no charge (see ocw.mit.edu). All you need is the inclination and the willingness to work at it. These obstacles are daunting enough, and will certainly limit the numbers who might otherwise clog up the university's servers. But isn't it reassuring, even inspiring, to know the resources are there when we need them? There are, at last, no limits to what we can know, and no reason to close the door on anything.

The hackneyed phrase at the end of a lecture is, "let's sum up what we've learned." It seems to me that is also a good place to start. My impulse to commit to paper everything I thought I already knew was really a way of finding out what I did not yet know, and where to go from there. It's an impulse that has served me well as I have continued to learn and grow without being necessarily limited by my education, profession, or circumstances. What I'm doing now on this blog is really a new form of the same activity. I'm learning what I know, so I will know what to learn.

Now, I wonder what's next ...

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