I know this, but what good does it do me to know?

I realized that this post needed a picture so I took a picture of a book in protest

[assay!]

Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:

  • “Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now. 
  • “Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
  • “Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”

Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field

I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).

So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:

What good does knowledge do me?

In an ironic way, I think it helps to look to thinkers who more or less deny the value of knowledge. Consider the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi here, from his Zibaldone, quoted in the collection Passions:

People’s attitude to life is the same as the Italian husband’s towards his wife: he needs to believe she is faithful even though he knows it’s not true. A conflicted psychological state is posited where one knows, but chooses not to know, because knowledge is neither helpful nor attractive. Given the ever-present danger of disillusionment, denial is the default. [Passions, trans. Parks. All emphasis mine]

Here though, Leopardi means knowledge as in simple “knowing,” not learning, to make a sort of proto-existential point about the necessity of “illusions” to drive the passions that give our lives meaning. The translator Tim Parks maybe comes closer to the idea of education in a short introductory biography on Leopardi:

Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary, it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions, as he came to call them, that give life meaning. [Passions, Introduction]

For Leopardi, who infamously declared that “everything is evil,” knowledge begins to look evil too for stripping us of our comforting illusions! But I don’t think a school administration would appreciate that answer… Let’s try someone more upbeat then, the French essayist Montaigne, who makes a virtue of ignorance:

Like the rest of men’s goods, knowledge is one which, if we look at it steadily, has much inherent vanity and natural feebleness … I have taken pleasure in hearing of men somewhere or other who, from piety, make vows of ignorance similar to vows of chastity, poverty and penance. To take the edge off that cupidity which goads us towards the study of books, and to deprive our souls of that pleasurable self-satisfaction which thrills us with the opinion that we know something is farther to castrate our disordered desires [Book 3, Essay 12, “On Physiognomy,” trans. Screech]

Montaigne sees ignorance as a virtue because he considers knowledge a pleasure, thus the austere holy man who practices self-denial should just as well deny himself knowledge as he does sex or material comforts. In offering advice to the ordinary person then, Montaigne extends the analogy to argue that we should pursue knowledge only in moderation, in the same way that we might avoid an excess of food and drink. Later in the essay, Montaigne argues that a rigorous reading of Socrates alone should suffice to form the basis for a moral life of clear judgement in alignment with our natural capacities. But when choosing among other thinkers to study, like the master rhetorician Cicero, he wonders:

Would I have died any less the happily before reading the Tusculan Disputations?

For someone as learned as Montaigne, that’s hardly a pro-intellectual position. And even worse, Montaigne’s conjecture perhaps mirrors the lived experience of Leopardi, who, despite his erudite mastery of the classics in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and English, never ceased to profess his misery across all of his writings. As Montaigne predicted then, Leopardi’s life spent in an excess of learning may have fallen into a counter-intuitive vice of its own.

For a more modern (and succinct!) writer too, try this line from the Romanian-French aphorist E. M. Cioran, from whom I borrowed the title for this post:

Buddhism calls anger “corruption of the mind,” Manicheism “root of the tree of death.” I know this, but what good does it do me to know? [The Trouble with Being Born, trans. Howard]

As Cioran often does, he jumps from the premise straight into despair: even if he knows the truth about anger, that knowledge won’t stop him from feeling it. The emotion comes on its own and, more to the point, its coming perhaps invalidates the usefulness knowing its evils, after the fact (and then if he’s already angry, such wisdoms will hardly make him less angry!). So, if Montaigne makes knowledge a measured pleasure and Leopardi an authentic evil, Cioran reacts with indifference:

To tell the truth, I couldn’t care less about the relativity of knowledge, simply because the world does not deserve to be known. [On the Heights of Despair, trans. Howard]

A pleasure, an evil, or indifference… I still don’t know how to answer my students’ questions. And worse, if you adopt the skeptical mode of the three thinkers above, the typical cheerful answers that the education system uses to justify itself don’t seem good enough either.

For example, why value a trite truism like “knowledge is power” if you don’t even want power in the first place (like Montaigne, who almost brags of his lack of ambition)? Or how do you reckon an inspirational platitude about “expanding minds” when a scholar as accomplished as Leopardi only met misery? And even a feel-good faith in science to rise all tides popular with our current STEM-boosting culture unsettles me when issues like climate change show that though our knowledge has enabled the expansion of humanity, it may also have hastened our demise (a constant preoccupation of Cioran’s). Maybe we would have remained happier living like Leopardi’s “primitive man” or Montaigne’s “cannibals,” not because those lives would have been materially better (I’ll take my vaccines), but because their lack of modern knowledge protects them from modern anxieties. After all, you can’t worry about climate change if you don’t even know that it exists!

Oh, but it’ll be on your Earth Sciences test next week. Chop chop, kiddos, you gotta finish your study guides. For the next two minutes before the bell, your motivation is that I said so, because someone told me to say so too, even if I still don’t know why.

I don’t like that authoritarian answer. Though, if I’m going to do it anyway, what good would it do me to know?

4 thoughts on “I know this, but what good does it do me to know?

  1. I think the third bullet you listed is a good answer for kids. It’s the kind of answer that stuck with me, anyways, when I had the same questions. It’s the connecting-the-dots commencement speech Steve Jobs gave: you can’t know how things will shape up until you look back. But of course, some people can spend their whole lives collecting and connecting dots but never drawing anything meaningful with them, other people can gather and use just a few dots and still make a nice picture in the end. Either way, I would tell kids its better to have more dots than not have enough and that, in the end, it’s up to us how we use those dots.

    As for the “expanding minds” inspirational platitude, well, if a kid came up to me and was like “Leopardi learned and only found misery- why should I learn?” I’d be like “Wow, do you read the same blog as I do?” and then tell him to go back to their homework because they’re not Leopardi.

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  2. There’s a great value in a broad education that our highly-specialized division of labor maybe discourages. I suppose Jobs was famous for emphasizing artistic design on top of raw engineering, right?

    For your second paragraph, yeah: “finish your study guides.” But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss Leopardi as a unique case either. Moving past his misery to the more general point about disillusionment, I think it’s pretty non-controversial to suggest that the revelation of knowledge can sometimes strip away comforting ideals (he gives examples like losing faith in Christiany or patriotism). He then concludes that ignorance might be preferable to knowledge for some discomforting truths or, taken from a less controversial angle, knowledge doesn’t ensure happiness.

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    1. No, it isn’t controversial at all, but I think in this context it’s weird to put Leopardi and a present day middle schooler in the same boat. Leopardi is disillusioned, the middle schooler is disengaged.

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    2. Well, yeah, but that’s the whole point of my last couple paragraphs… I’m not applying any of the three writers above to middle schoolers: “Do your study guides.” I find each of them interesting but don’t find a way to use them except in an ironic, reflexive way: “I know this, but what good does it do me to know.”

      And even then, I don’t think disillusionment is impossible in the young, though maybe not in the Leopardian way. I watched a black student call out his social studies teacher while she explained the 14th ammendment to say that the constitution *still* doesn’t treat protect many minorities well, despite the ideal. He was the opposite of disengaged — he had to pay attention well to make that sort of astute observation. Instead, he demonstrated an early disappointment with our patriotic civic education.

      Plus, plenty of middle schoolers make their own silly ideal out of pursuing what they perceive as forbidden knowledge. It’s where that whole meme of the edgy 13 year old comes from!

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