T.S. Eliot Frames This Discussion
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
(from The Rock, quoted in Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, Chances Are…Adventures in Probability
My last post related to exactly what Eliot laments — as we live in an information age what knowledge, what wisdom, what sense of deep and profound life are we in danger of losing? Is it loss or change? If change from what to what?
By pure coincidence I happen to be reading a group of books that frame the heritage of Greece and Rome in the West. I mentioned Adrianne Mayor’s The Poison King — which is set just as Rome slides from Republic to Empire. I happen to also be reading Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome — Illuminating the Dark Ages tinyurl.com/ykpf8xf and, in addition to the Mary Carruthers I mentioned yesterday, Frances Yates, The Art of Memory tinyurl.com/95w39m Reading these books I saw — as I knew but really had not ever totally grasped — how the ideas of Greece and Rome, as commented on, transmuted, turned inside out by medieval, renaissance, and enlightenment thinkers really endured as a foundation of Western learning until the 20th century. Mayor quotes 19th century English and American poems in which it is assumed that Mithradates and all of the details of his life and history are as familiar to the average reader as the day’s headlines. School meant some Latin and Greek, and not just for the language but so you could become familiar with the learning that was the foundation for everything else.
A century plus after that foundation was blasted away, what do we have as a foundation? Science? But we treat that as a subject area, not a baseline approach to life (hence controversies over everything from evolution to immunization). Multiculturalism — that is an attitude that properly treats, say, China and India as being as important for students to know as Greece and Rome, but it does not tell us what about China, India, Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Bible, they need to know to be educated good citizens in the modern world. We blasted away the old foundation without knowing what should be put in place to replace it. And thus we are left with — as Eliot beautifully puts it — information.
We offer students information aplenty without a frame, a grounding, an understanding for where it fits, what it means, what it leads to, how to understand it. To be clear, I am not suggesting a return to the old classical education. I am merely showing that getting rid of it left us in a free fall. Dewey and others might suggest that the baseline of education is building citizens of a democracy — giving students practical knowledge for functioning in the world — giving them, that is, information. Maybe — but as information floods us, we need something else — a means of thinking, weighing, evaluating, framing the flood. We need to know how to make wisdom, make knowledge, out of data. And, having lost the frame of the classics, I don’t think we know what the 21st century version should be.
Somehow that is what our books need to offer — the new grounding, the new foundation, the new frame so that students can take in the information flood armed with a way of processing that wave into wisdom.