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The tree of knowledge of good and evil

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In a liberal arts setting such as our own, the aim is critical thinking; through knowledge and wisdom, we may become masters of suspicion. Often, we find ourselves as an institution defending the values of the liberal arts experience, with most appeals rooted in the a priori assumption that learning is a good (an unmitigated good). This is something in which I have always been a firm believer, something that has helped me find meaning in life. On my bad days, I remind myself that learning is growth and growth is painful, and so here we are. On my good days, I try to actively produce instead of just actively (and often passively) consume. This is something which a friend has repeatedly challenged me to defend, but nearly everyone else I’ve spoken with reaffirms my system of values. Our professors do what they do for exactly this reason—to contribute to bodies of knowledge. It is one of our oft unquestioned assumptions which structures our interactions with just about everything we do. The accumulation of knowledge becomes the project with the process of acquiring information as both the means and the end. Is that why I want to learn? Is that why professors do research? Surely, it can’t stop there. It is important to remember that as Hobbes said, “scientia potentia est.” That knowledge, more so in the past than today, is power. If we take a quick glimpse at systems of oppression throughout history, we see that restriction and prohibition of the accumulation of knowledge is ubiquitous. Slaves were often not supposed to read or get an education. Members of lower classes often could not afford entry into private libraries and universities. Even today, we see a problem in education funding in areas where residents are of low socioeconomic status. In this way, we can draw a clear parallel between the accumulation of knowledge and the accumulation of capital, a cultural capital. Even so, I find it hard to believe that my goal is in fact to accumulate power. It seems gross—a perversion of academia, but it cannot be waved away.

The ancients (as a friend in classics pointed out) saw knowledge as a means to maintain control over emotion, and perhaps this is true. But is it true that more knowledge is always good? Aristotle’s argument for the golden mean could provide an answer (though a Philosophy professor warned me that, “The doctrine of the mean always gets tricky when one applies it,”). If a deficiency of knowledge is ignorance, and an excess is omniscience, then one should aim for the midpoint of the spectrum. What would it mean to succeed in the project of knowledge accumulation? The gulf between ignorance and omniscience is unimaginably large, so how could we possibly know when we’ve reached the goldilocks region? I doubt we’ve reached the midpoint, but I am beginning to believe that we have begun to know “too much.” One of the reasons for the widespread mental health issues on college campuses is this view of learning. Education as it exists is a clinical, sanitary and seemingly purposeless project. We learn for the diploma, for an acknowledgment, and because we’re told to by ourselves and others. I’ve spoken previously about the crowding out of internal motivation, and I think this applies here as well. By incentivizing education, the process of meaning-making is hindered and restructured. Simply, we lack the meaning in our education that more situated systems create over time. Our knowledge is undifferentiated, pluripotent. When we learn math in elementary schools, we do not learn it as something that is extremely relevant to our everyday lives, but as a hygienic information packet. We do this, presumably, so that we can have a “platonic” acquaintance with this information, one that isn’t constrained by the domain in which we learn it. This system is decentering; we learn to deal with the concrete in the abstract. It could be argued that this system is better for most in our society or that the commoditization of information would incentivize the creation and maintenance of such a system.

In Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the poems written by the fictional founder of an admittedly fake fictional religion goes as follows:

“Tiger got to hunt,

Bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

Tiger got to sleep,

Bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand”

Is this indicative of what Vonnegut via Bokonon believes to be human nature, or is this a fact of industrialization and the values imposed by the current educational system? We find ourselves stuck between likely two possibilities: that this is an unwanted side-effect of the human condition, the price of our highly developed sense of self-awareness and communicable consciousness or perhaps more optimistically, that it is a symptom of the educational system. Often I find myself overwhelmed and from speaking with others I doubt I’m alone. Alvin Toffler was prescient in describing information overload. The process of learning as we know it is a destructive process in which pre-existing belief structures are razed, but it important to remember that this may only be the way it is, and not the way it must be.

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