Knowledge

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

VIII: KNOWLEDGE

“Knowledge is power,” says the old adage; and yet so meaningless now, in many respects, do the words sound, that it is hard even to recapture the mental outlook from which it emanated. I imagine that it dates from a time when knowledge meant an imagined acquaintance with magical secrets, short cuts to wealth, health, influence, fame. Even now the application of science to the practical needs of man has some semblance of power about it; the telephone, wireless telegraphy, steam engines, anaesthetics- these are powerful things. But no man is profited by his discoveries; he cannot keep them to himself, and use them for his own private ends. The most he can do is to make a large fortune out of them. And as to other kinds of knowledge, erudition, learning, howdo they profit the possessor? “No one knows anything nowadays,” said an eminent man to me the other day; “it is not worth while! The most learned man is the man who knows best where to find things.” There still appears, in works of fiction, with pathetic persistence, a belief that learning still lingers at Oxford and Cambridge; those marvellous Dons, who appear in the pages of novels, men who read folios all the morning and drink port all the evening, where are they in reality? Not at Cambridge, certainly. I would travel many miles, I would travel to Oxford, if I thought I could find such an adorable figure. But the Don is now a brisk and efficient man of business, a paterfamilias with provision to make for his family. He has no time for folios and no inclination for port. Examination papers in the morning, and a glass of lemonade at dinner, are the notes of his leisure days. The belief in uncommercial knowledge has indeed died out of England. Eton, as Mr. Birrell said, can hardly be described as a place of education; and to what extent can Oxford and Cambridge be described as places of literary research? A learned man is apt to be considered a bore, and the highest compliment that can be paid him is that one would not suspect him of being learned.

There is, indeed, a land in which knowledge is respected, and that is America. If we do not take care, the high culture will desert our shores, like Astraea’s flying hem, and take her way Westward, with the course of Empire.

A friend of mine once told me that he struggled up a church-tower in Florence, a great lean, pale brick minaret, designed, I suppose, to be laminated with marble, but cheerfully abandoned to bareness; he came out on to one of those high balustraded balconies, which in mediaeval pictures seem to have been always crowded with fantastically dressed persons, and are now only visited by tourists. The silvery city lay outspread beneath him, with the rapid mud-stained river passing to the plain, the hill-side crowded with villas embowered in green gardens, and the sad-coloured hills behind. While he was gazing, two other tourists, young Americans, came quietly out on to the balcony, a brother and sister, he thought. They looked out for a time in silence, leaning on the parapet; and then the brother said softly, “How much we should enjoy all this, if we were not so ignorant!” Like all Americans, they wanted to know! It was not enough for them to see the high houses, the fantastic towers, the great blind blocks of mediaeval palaces, thrust so grimly out above the house-tops. It all meant life and history, strife and sorrow, it all needed interpreting and transfiguring and re-peopling; without that it was dumb and silent, vague and bewildering. One does not know whether to admire or to sigh! Ought one not to be able to take beauty as it comes? What if one does not want to know these things, as Shelley said to his lean and embarrassed tutor at Oxford? If knowledge makes the scene glow and live, enriches it, illuminates it, it is well. And perhaps in England we learn to live so incuriously and naturally among historical things that we forget the existence of tradition, and draw it in with the air we breathe, just realising it as a pleasant background and not caring to investigate it or master it. It is hard to say what we lose by ignorance, it is hard to say what we should gain by knowledge. Perhaps to want to know would be a sign of intellectual and emotional activity; but it could not be done as a matter of duty-only as a matter of enthusiasm.

The poet Clough once said, “It makes a great difference to me that Magna Charta was signed at Runnymede, but it does not make much difference to me to know that it was signed.” The fact that it was so signed affects our liberties, the knowledge only affects us, if it inspires us to fresh desire of liberty, whatever liberty may be. It is even more important to be interested in life than to be interested in past lives. It was Scott, I think, who asked indignantly,

Lives there the man with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said

This is my own, my native land?

I do not know how it may be in Scotland! Dr. Johnson once said rudely that the finest prospect a Scotchman ever saw was the high road that might take him to England; but I should think that if Scott’s is a fair test of deadness of soul, there must be a good many people in England who are as dead as doornails! The Englishman is not very imaginative; and a farmer who was accustomed to kneel down like Antaeus, and kiss the soil of his orchard, would be thought an eccentric!

Shall we then draw a cynical conclusion from all this, and say that knowledge is a useless burden; or if we think so, why do we think it? I have very little doubt in my own mind that why so many young men despise and even deride knowledge is because knowledge has been presented to them in so arid a form, so little connected with anything that concerns them in the remotest degree. We ought, I think, to wind our way slowly back into the past from the present; we ought to start with modern problems and modern ideas, and show people how they came into being; we ought to learn about the world, as it is, first, and climb the hill slowly. But what we do is to take the history of the past, Athens and Rome and Judaea, three glowing and shining realms, I readily admit; but we leave the gaps all unbridged, so that it seems remote, abstruse, and incomprehensible that men should ever have lived and thought so.

Then we deluge children with the old languages, not teaching them to read, but to construe, and cramming the little memories with hideous grammatical forms. So the whole process of education becomes a dreary wrestling with the uninteresting and the unattainable; and when we have broken the neck of infantile curiosity with these uncouth burdens, we wonder that life becomes a place where the only aim is to get a good appointment, and play as many games as possible.

Yet learning need not be so cumbrously carried after all! I was reading a few days ago a little book by Professor Ker, on mediaeval English, and reading it with a species of rapture. It all came so freshly and pungently out of a full mind, penetrated with zest and enjoyment. One followed the little rill of literary craftsmanship so easily out of the plain to its high source among the hills, till I wondered why on earth I had not been told some of these delightful things long ago, that I might have seen how our great literature took shape. Such scraps of knowledge as I possess fell into shape, and I saw the whole as in a map outspread.

And then I realised that knowledge, if it was only rightly directed, could be a beautiful and attractive thing, not a mere fuss about nothing, dull facts reluctantly acquired, readily forgotten.

All children begin by wanting to know, but they are often told not to be tiresome, which generally means that the elder person has no answer to give, and does not like to appear ignorant. And then the time comes for Latin Grammar, and Cicero de Senectute, and Caesar’s Commentaries, and the bewildered stripling privately resolves to have no more than he can help to do with these antique horrors. The marvellous thing seems to him to be that men of flesh and blood could have found it worth their while to compose such things.

Erudition, great is thy sin! It is not that one wants to deprive the savant of his knowledge; one only wants a little common-sense and imaginative sympathy. How can a little boy guess that some of the most beautiful stories in the world lie hid among a mass of wriggling consonants, or what a garden lurks behind the iron gate, with blèskwand moloàmaito guard the threshold?

I am not going here to discuss the old curriculum. “Let ’em ‘ave it!” as the parent said to the schoolmaster, under the impression that it was some instrument of flagellation-as indeed it is, I look round my book-lined shelves, and reflect how much of interest and pleasure those parallel rows have meant to me, and how I struggled into the use of them outside of and not because of my so-called education; and how much they might mean to others if they had not been so conscientiously bumped into paths of peace.

“Nothing,” said Pater, speaking of art in one of his finest passages, “nothing which has ever engaged the great and eager affections of men and women can ever wholly lose its charm.” Not to the initiated, perhaps! But I sometimes wonder if anything which has been taught with dictionary and grammar, with parsing and construing, with detention and imposition, can ever wholly regain its charm. I am afraid that we must make a clean sweep of the old processes, if we have any intention of interesting our youth in the beauty of human ideas and their expression. But while we do not care about beauty and interest in life, while we conscientiously believe, in spite of a cataract of helpless facts, in the virtues of the old grammar-grind, so long shall we remain an uncivilised nation. Civilisation does not consist in commercial prosperity, or even in a fine service of express trains. It resides in quick apprehension, lively interest, eager sympathy . . . at least I suspect so.

“Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter!” said the rueful prophet. I do not write as a pessimist, hardly as a critic; still less as a censor; to waste time in deriding others’ theories of life is a very poor substitute for enjoying it! I think we do very fairly well as we are; only do not let us indulge in the cant in which educators so freely indulge, the claim that we are interested in ideas intellectual or artistic, and that we are trying to educate our youth in these things. We do produce some intellectual athletes, and we knock a few hardy minds more or less into shape; but meanwhile a great river of opportunities, curiosity, intelligence, taste, interest, pleasure, goes idly weltering, through mud-flats and lean promontories and bare islands to the sea. It is the loss, the waste, the folly, of it that I deplore.

“Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter!” said the rueful prophet. I do not write as a pessimist, hardly as a critic; still less as a censor; to waste time in deriding others’ theories of life is a very poor substitute for enjoying it! I think we do very fairly well as we are; only do not let us indulge in the cant in which educators so freely indulge, the claim that we are interested in ideas intellectual or artistic, and that we are trying to educate our youth in these things. We do produce some intellectual athletes, and we knock a few hardy minds more or less into shape; but meanwhile a great river of opportunities, curiosity, intelligence, taste, interest, pleasure, goes idly weltering, through mud-flats and lean promontories and bare islands to the sea. It is the loss, the waste, the folly, of it that I deplore.

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