“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” somebody once said. I was reminded of this one Thanksgiving when I was 16 and my college-age cousin came over for dinner. What he had learned in one semester of General Psychology and Intro to Political Science was astonishing. It overturned all our cherished notions of human development and social organization. It rewrote the history of Western Civilization and set Hegel, Freud, and Rousseau on their collective little ears.
I learned so much that day, not the least of which was the intoxicating lure of knowledge pursued for its own sake. What my cousin lacked in perspective he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Some years later, doggedly but joyfully trying to swim through a sea of Greek verbs and nouns, I learned that the ‘enthusiastic’ were those who were ‘in God,’ caught up, as it were, to the heavens.
Confucius, master teacher that he was, believed this is the kind of energy necessary to learning. He declared that if he held up one corner of a handkerchief and a prospective student didn’t come back with the other three corners, he couldn’t teach that person anything. Now that’s an entrance requirement.
By the time first-year students arrive on campus they have already endured 12 years of noble experimentation in building a knowledge base. Much as in the world of corporate finance some of this knowledge has come through mergers (biology and chemistry), some through hostile takeovers (addition, division, multiplication), some as a result of downsizing (this is all you need to know for the test), and some through acquisition (this is good for you).
And now they are in college where the possibilities for increasing that knowledge base may seem both daunting and exciting. And perhaps for the first time as working learners they will be asked to focus, narrow, limit and direct their knowledge acquisition. People will ask them, by way of conversation openers, “What’s your major?” or “What are you planning to do with that?”
Those questions come from a desire to know them, to add to someone’s knowledge base the equivalents of name, rank, and serial number. They begin to be defined by what they know—and don’t know—a curious rite of passage into adulthood that seeks to categorize by the lowest common denominator. What we don’t know can be seen as a weakness and so we try to deny, cover up, and otherwise bluff our way through life. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Confucius counseled humility. Come to knowledge acquisition with a humble spirit, an open mind, and boundless enthusiasm. Better yet, realize (make real) that knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, the tempering that comes through experience applied with humor and compassion. The author of Ecclesiastes, his constant tone one of irony and rueful skepticism, does not sneer, however, when he urges us to ‘get wisdom.’
The role that teachers are called to play in all this is simple. As Robert Grudin says in The Grace of Great Things, “The fundamental motive of true teaching is the love that seeks and studies and performs. True teachers not only impart knowledge and method but awaken the love of learning by virtue of their own reflected love.”
We might, as teachers and learners ourselves, feel caught up to the third heaven of the joy of learning. Rejoice in that feeling! On the other hand, we may find ourselves, like Dante, feeling our way through a dark wood with no idea where in Hell we are. We may rejoice in that feeling too, for we are not lost. We are on the brink of discovering how boundless the world is and how rich the experience of those who enter into it with joy and humility.