On the moral imperative of knowing what to know

Not so long ago, the universe of knowledge was limited.  A single person could cover it – indeed, every educated person was expected to cover it.  Outside a few esoteric corners abandoned to cosmologists and German philosophers, knowledge was said to be held in common:  shared.

In that lost world, authority ruled.  I use the word in the most benign sense.  Knowledge must be separated from nonsense, and someone had to do the job.  The educated public felt grateful.  Its work was simplified.  Whatever disputes or uncertainties occurred within the ranks of authority caused hardly a ripple elsewhere.

The situation today is almost entirely reversed.  Knowledge pours down like a monsoon, day and night, in every place.  As it multiplies beyond comprehension, the word knowledge loses its descriptive value:  it’s really information, a cosmic explosion of random bits.  Only when we string the bits back together inside our heads does it reassume the form of knowledge.

In this vast chaos of information, one person can only grope.  The most brilliant and best-informed can know little of the whole:  for practical purposes, almost nothing.  The whole is unfathomable, as if designed by a deranged quantum physicist or a drunken disciple of Hegel.  All of us are ignorant of even the most salient features of the landscape we traverse.

Those vested with authority stand rattled and confused.  They can’t help us.  They can’t help themselves.  The lucky ones squat on well-funded specialized islands of knowledge, participating in quaint hierarchies, behaving as if the accreditation which props up their self-image rests, or at least should rest, on universal law.  But most have been swept away in the deluge.

We can debate whether the present moment is favorable to democracy:  but it is fiercely anti-authoritarian.  The public has awakened, and found authority to be no guide to the way forward.  To reasonable questions about the blizzard of bits within which all of us must now function, authority – government officials, scientists, academics, journalists, artists and poets, billionaire financiers – return transparently hackneyed, defensive, unknowledgeable answers.  Those who represent authority seem rather to impersonate it.  Basic facts and principles are objects of loud, indecisive disputes.  They don’t know.

The public has awakened, and is in open revolt.  Threatened in their livelihood and stung by the collapse of their prestige, those vested with authority have used the organs of mass communication to preach a cataclysmic vision.  With no one to separate knowledge from nonsense, the public, they claim, will be free to indulge its fractured prejudices, its contradictory appetites, degenerating finally into warring barbarian bands.  The rise of the public means the end of civilized social life.

Such claims come from wounded pride, but have a grain of truth in them.  In nations as distinct and well-established as Egypt and Britain, the foundations of society appear to be tottering.  Here at home, mobs of young blacks have attacked whites for no particular reason.  Apparently, the militant rage of the public can be ignited by sociopolitical grievances of long standing or by simple boredom with the established order.

But these are signs and omens, not evidence of a demonstrable trend.  There remain in the new dispensation enough shared points of reference that we can easily talk to one another across partisan, ethnic, and class lines.  Some shared topics are generated by the world:  the brute facts of nature.  Many more are produced by culture.  Others crystallize mysteriously within the digital storm:  the phenomenon of virality.  One job of education in the new environment will be to teach those shared points of reference which, in the public’s view, sustain and enrich social life.

In fact, education – always of strategic importance to a democracy – will be revolutionized.  The old ideal of covering all general knowledge must necessarily be abandoned.  Accredited teachers and professors who cling to their authority will either die in place or be shoved, ungently, out the door.  They will be replaced by global talent which must compete for the public’s attention.

Given a near-infinite universe of information, the new educational approach will focus less on content and more on navigation skills (including search and research), source assessment, and tools.  The task is to make members of the public, who are also citizens of a democratic nation, capable of finding data bits and stringing them together inside their heads to create knowledge.

Once we attain this capability, the obvious question is how it should be applied:  what knowledge each of us ought to seek.  And here morality, which has been lurking in the wings of this story, at last takes center stage.

Superficially, many responses are possible to the question of what knowledge to seek:  but morally only two matter.  One answer is to abdicate personal responsibility for knowledge.  A person can stand pat, or put himself in the hands of some other person considered an authority.  In the first instance, the mind will be tyrannized by the environment:  mental life will feel like a series of accidents, void of knowledge, adrift among the random bits churned up, arbitrarily, by the chaos.  In the second instance, one surrenders autonomy to specialists who, though masters of minutiae, at best have no clearer vision of the big picture than the public itself – and at worst abuse science, or pseudo-science, to promote anti-democratic projects.

The alternative is to choose the domains of knowledge we wish to create:  to forge a purpose, wrestle with boundless chaos, impose our will on information.  These are acts with profound moral consequences.  They imply a new freedom, unavailable under the old authority-driven system.  They endow the seeker with a certain majesty.  The subjects chosen are of course important, but only in the moral sense.  A nihilist who seeks to learn methods for blowing up innocent people is evil.  A student of manga or computer games, so long as he is imposing himself on his subject, in terms of human dignity is no different from an expert on Renaissance art or a practitioner of atonal music.

The production of knowledge by an autonomous public will appear eccentric, because beyond the shared points of reference our current hierarchies of intellectual value were erected by authority, and mirror the esoteric products of accredited professionals.  By the same token, the possession of such knowledge by amateurs, and the abolition of ancient hierarchies, will transfer moral responsibility on every question of importance to the many from the few.  This in turn places a burden on every individual member of the public.

In a world drained of valid authority yet drowning in informational chaos, we must each choose to choose:  and we must know what to know.

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3 Responses to On the moral imperative of knowing what to know

  1. stephen b says:

    Directed here from American Digest and glad of it. I’ll be back regularly.
    This post reminds me of talks I’ve had with my daughter. She is an avid pursuer of knowledge, undergraduate degree in Astrophysics, working on her MA in Library Sciences, although she is currently busy working at a YMCA camp on the beach in southern CA. I’m fairly confident her mother and I instilled in her a lifelong learning desire, and I hope we conveyed to her a moral sense, so that knowledge is garnered for enriching human futures.

  2. Doug says:

    Another way to describe ‘moral sense’ would be ‘discernment,’ which is much more fitting in this context. Wisdom and discernment are crucial tools in navigating an endless sea of information. Otherwise, as you pint out, you find yourself trying to hoard as much information as possible without any discernment.

  3. Andy Jones says:

    It’s always time to choose.

    What is at stake is the variable… and the stakes are very, very high.

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