Monday, December 5, 2016

A Little Knowledge…

We all have incomplete educations. Moreover, what we have often dissipates over time as is amply demonstrated on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, an enjoyable TV game show on which successful adult professionals (some of them academics) repeatedly reveal they are not. All questions on the show come from 5th grade textbooks. Yet, since 2007 only two contestants, including Nobel winning physicist George Smoot, have won the million dollar prize. Our failings run the gamut from Accounting to Zoology. Earlier this autumn Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson badly damaged his campaign by flubbing a question on Aleppo, but he has plenty of geographically-challenged company. In a country in which a majority of people receive at least some higher education beyond high school, most Americans nonetheless cannot even find Syria on a map. (They can’t find Afghanistan either, even though American troops have been fighting and dying there for 15 years.) Back in 2013 Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein argued in all seriousness that this doesn’t matter so long as they can Google the answer: “In this era of labeled maps, Google Earth, and, well, Google, the question isn't whether you can find Syria on a map. It's whether you can find useful information about Syria in your browser.”

I can’t state emphatically enough how much I disagree – not just about Syria in particular but about the whole notion that an internet connection is a substitute for knowledge. It is not. Nor is it a substitute for skill. It is not unimportant to be able to add or spell just because one’s laptop has a calculator and autocorrect. Knowing how and when to look up additional information is all very fine, but creativity and thoughtful analysis depend on the ability to make connections among disparate bits of knowledge in one’s own head. That doesn’t work if the bits aren’t there. If we let a machine think for us, any kudos for the result belong entirely to the machine.

That said, I’m acutely aware of the huge gaps that exist in my own education. One way to fill in enough gaps at least to fake it at a dinner party with truly well-informed people is to read cover to cover An Incomplete Education: 3684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t (Third Edition) by Judy Jones and William Wilson. This certainly is a goal of mine, so last week I read the book. What’s your weakness? Art history? Anthropology? Poetry? Psychology? Philosophy? How about the names of the various types of carriages or the details of pre-decimal British currency? An amazing amount of information (yes, including about Syria) is in this 700 page compendium. It’s no substitute for in-depth studies, of course, but it will get one through that dinner party without sounding like a dullard. It also gives the reader a framework for more self-education if he or she is so inclined. Besides, who knows what new thoughts will come from all those new bits of info inside one’s own head? We’ll have to see if any pop into my own.

Thumbs up.

Sam Cooke. (I considered Know Nothing by Travis, but video embedding for the song is disabled by request of the rights-holders.)


  1. I've got that book as well, and it's a good recommendation even if one just thumbs through it casually. Your dinner parties must be more refined than those I attend. Most of them consist of: Did you see the new Ricky & Morty or something about the latest movie one saw or even something about a comic book find. I guess I run in geekier circles. :) But yes, friends and gatherings are hard to beat.

    1. It's a pretty cool bunch that haphazardly accumulated over the years for our parties. They have nothing in common and span 7 decades but that seems to be what makes it work. Your gang sounds like just as much fun.