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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Why The White Man is not an Expert on Anything

I wrote recently on the subject of Old Pilots and Bold Pilots, in which I appeared to find some exceptions to the rule that there are no old, bold pilots. But as I consider the question, I think that my exceptions actually proved the rule. The pilots who lived to an advanced age may or may not have started out bold; but, having survived any risks they undertook in their youth, later flew as carefully as their old age required.

There is a corollary, I think, to the question of learning. "A little learning is a dangerous thing," wrote Alexander Pope at the age of twenty-one, in his first published work. Here is the quote in context:

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744), An Essay on Criticism L. 215, 1711.

But look what Pope wrote the year he died:

"Ask of the Learned the way? The Learned are blind;
This bids to serve, and that to shun mankind;
Some place the bliss in action, some in ease,
Those call it Pleasure, and Contentment these."
Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Ep. IV. L. 19.

Another thirty-five years had dimmed in Pope's mind the value of much learning. Indeed, much learning was ridiculed by the ancients:

"Your much learning is driving you insane."
Porcius Festus, quoted in Luke, Acts, XXVI.24, c. 50

Especially was much learning of useless facts ridiculed:

"The languages, especially the dead,
The sciences, and most of all the abstruse,
The arts, at least all such as could be said
To be the most remote from common use,
In all these he was much and deeply read."
Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto I. St. 40, published anonymously in 1819

The ancients valued learning, but never for learning's sake:

"Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."
Confucius, Analects Bk. II. Ch. XV.

Even much learning could end up being of no benefit:

"I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine
And even, alas, Theology
From end to end with labor keen;
And here, poor fool; with all my lore
I stand no wiser than before."
Goethe, Faust, I. Night, 1808.

Learning was only of use if it resulted in wisdom:

"The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." Solomon, Proverbs, I. 7, c. 1000 BCE

"Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
Yet think what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret, and the goal.
See nations, slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust."
Samuel Johnson, Vanity of Human Wishes, L. 157, 1754.

So, is much learning--the kind of learning that requires one to become an expert on anything--really worth it?

"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. " James, James III.1, c. 45

"Few men make themselves Masters of the things they write or speak."
John Selden (1584 – 1654), Table Talk, "Learning."

Perhaps, taking our cue from the Bold Pilots, we who aspire to teach should begin in our youth to acquire much learning, realising that it will be some time before we will actually have the wisdom required to profitably impart that learning to others. But we must always realise that we are ever learning, even as we are teaching:

Homines, dum docent, discunt [Men learn while they teach].
Seneca, Epistolæ Ad Lucilium VII, 64

So, The White Man is not an expert on anything--yet; and may never be. But in the mean time, I intend to stick out my neck and at least question the learning--yea, even the wisdom--of those who claim that they are. And, in so doing, I expect to learn more myself.

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