I need to complain about my fellow philosophers. But maybe I’m confused. Maybe some philosophers out there can set me straight, somehow.
In recent years, as my interests have turned away from encyclopedia-building and toward education, I have become increasingly interested in the whole social phenomenon of people appearing to devalue academic knowledge. This is unfortunate enough in students, but it is disturbing among adults who shape the attitudes of children, and positively alarming among educators–precisely the people responsible for imparting knowledge. This trend is part and parcel of anti-intellectualism–and, by the way, it has recently gotten a fresh shot in the arm from the rise of the Internet. Let’s call this the problem of anti-intellectualism.
Concern about this problem has led me to read, among other things, Susan Jacoby’s pretty interesting book The Age of American Unreason. I’ve been thinking of writing an essay on the topic, and making a defense of knowledge as such, and in particular, why it ought to be the centerpiece of our goal statements of education. Education is, first and foremost, about the getting of knowledge, or improving our understanding. Toying with this idea, I decided to look into what some of my fellow philosophers have said about it. Philosophers frequently say that knowledge is an intrinsic good, something sought for its own sake. But, of course, there is far more that can be said about the value of knowledge than that, even if it is an intrinsic good.
I was not too surprised to learn that a currently trendy topic in epistemology is now the value of knowledge. But when one looks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, attractively titled “The Value of Knowledge,” one discovers that there is very little indeed on the problem above-described. Instead, it is all about the relatively technical problem of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. I decided to search the page for the words “anti-intellectual” and “anti-intellectualism.” They do not occur in the article. In fact, there is no significant discussion of “anti-intellectual” or “anti-intellectualism” anywhere in in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. This is how all too many philosophers water down what could be truly fascinating questions: they identify some vaguely related technical issue connected to the interesting question, and then compare technical theories on the technical issue. Now, don’t get me wrong; I studied with many analytical philosophers and I strongly prefer analytical philosophy to Continental philosophy. Moreover, the philosophers’ “problem of value” is actually interesting to me. But, sadly, the “relevance” critique does have some purchase.
Here by the way is my own current view, the view I might want to expand in an essay. Knowledge–or more precisely, amassing a large body of knowledge, and coming to understand many different aspects of our world, personal, social, and natural, abstract and applied, theoretical and practical, historical and current, mathematical and verbal–is valuable because it improves us. Having good writing and speaking skills makes our communication more efficient and effective. Being able to read texts accurately makes it possible to understand instructions, evaluate arguments, and make sense of explanations. Acquaintance with literature and psychology makes us more worldly, or able to relate smoothly to a wider variety of personalities. History and politics make us better citizens. Math ability has not just obvious practical consumer uses, but also allows us to make sense of the more abstract aspects of the world, which are sometimes the only way to come to an accurate, nuanced understanding of why things are as they are. Or in other words, science. Science, especially at the more advanced levels in which we understand not just observable facts but begin to grasp the deeper reasons for things, ultimately forms the basis for engineering marvels as well as technocrats’ policy decisions, which, in massive bureaucratic states such as we have now, are widespread. Philosophy and logic can (or should) greatly improve the clarity with which we think about the world. Mastering all of these subjects generally improves one’s ability to understand and make oneself clear on various other subjects. Education makes it possible for us to get stuff done in a complex world. I could go on and on, of course. I’m pretty sure that with more thought (or research) I will be able to pull together these various disparate advantages into a few general themes. I’m sure eventually I’ll sound themes of liberal education, that education in general broadens the mind, liberates us, and so forth.
The multi-faceted ways in which knowledge quite obviously improves us are precisely why schools were invented in the first place, and why people have continued to support the institution of education vigorously. Indeed, I submit that without reference to the virtues imparted specifically by knowledge, one cannot begin to make sense of education as an institution. This is why I say that the purpose or goal of education is, first and foremost–regardless of whatever other goals it might have–to cause students to have knowledge, or to improve their understanding. This is the most basic, ur-explanation of the existence of education and hence schools.
Well, I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m not ready to write the essay just yet, if I ever will be.