Knowledge for Its Own Sake

Sometimes students need a boost, as they can get pulled down into the routine of trying to balance school and life, studying and making ends meet. Sometimes I’m right there with them. I’m keenly aware that they have different motives for being in school. To some, university is just what’s been expected of them since they were children. It’s just the next step. For others it was a more deliberate decision. And of course for nearly all of them, a diploma is seen as a ticket to a better future. However, that doesn’t automatically translate into curiosity or enthusiasm.
On those days when I need to remind myself to look up and remember what it’s all about, I’ll turn to a few key ideas to get me back down to bedrock. What’s the point? It’s got to be more than trying to memorize keywords and jumping through all the right hoops in order to graduate. I think it’s pretty simple: trying to use our very short time here to better understand the world while we have the opportunity. Knowledge for its own sake.
To get that across to one of my classes, I recently shared this passage from Frank McCourt’s autobiography Angela’s Ashes. In this part of the book, McCourt is a young boy in school in gritty, western Ireland in the 1930s. Most of the boys in his class face some level of hardship, with many struggling for necessities, including food and shoes. The teacher tries to inspire them:
“Mr. O’Halloran (the teacher) says, You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind.  It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it… You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” (p. 208)
Our students are pretty diverse, with many first-generation college students (as was I). Depending on the conditions in which someone grew up, this passage might come across as sappy or inspirational. I prefer the latter. 

4 thoughts on “Knowledge for Its Own Sake

  1. Knowledge for its own sake? Maybe. But it’s a bit like art for art’s sake and all the other things for their own sake. It’s fair enough not to have a specific objective when you pick up a paintbrush or a textbook ~ unless it’s Learn Zulu in a Week or Garden Yourself to Happiness ~ but knowledge doesn’t just fill the mind, it changes it. Even Mr O’Halloran says you have to study so that —–. Those who go into art or literature get something out of it ~ enjoyment, awe, status, or a feeling (perhaps of superiority) at being able to do something ‘for its own sake’. Physics and algebra has aesthetics, its not just a complete abstraction from emotion and practical application. Everything is related to everything: so personally I doubt there is any independent knowledge that can be appreciated entirely for its own sake. But it’s a nice enough expression. Wouldn’t use it with kids ‘though. After all, if there no point in reading history except to read history, why not play a video game?
    On the other hand: Love for love’s sake does seem to make sense. But you don’t need to go to school at all to learn it.

    • Robert, you’re right of course. Everything is related, and knowledge has a function: how to make a fire, how to write an essay, or how to understand the physical world. The aesthetics you mentioned that go along with knowledge is a wonderful bonus, perhaps even the main attraction. I think what I was getting at was that education should be more than just a ticket to a job, to be a cog in the machine. I know the machine exists, and is unavoidable, but I like the idea (or the feeling I get from the idea) that there’s some independent part of us that seeks to understand the world as much as possible before we’re gone.

    • Robert: you rightly characterize knowledge as something which alters and forms a person. Indeed, there is often pleasure in it. Aristotle all those many years ago said that one the primary reasons why we learn is because we enjoy learning. But what is meant by knowledge for its own sake is not that the knowledge does not effect us, but rather that it is not done for the sake of something else. To say it more naturally, often we seek to learn something not because we wish to use that knowledge somehow, but because we simply want to know about it. The end of knowledge, in such a case, is itself–we don’t use it as a means to an end. But doesn’t mean knowledge cannot and should not be used as means. One of the most wonderful effects of knowledge is that it can be used practically. We often use the word “applied” to indicate this. Anyhow, I have begun to ramble. There is much to be said on the subject, and I find it an important and fascinating one!

  2. BR and Patrick. Let’s compromise. Knowledge does have effects but not always the intended effects and sometimes the opposite effects. As you say, it’s complex. People can learn to read, but if they only read the Bible or Koran their ‘total knowledge’ may be constricted rather than expanded. Perhaps the classic example, or at least one I like, is Chaucer. He was well to do, well educated, well travelled and well connected. And let’s face it any Englishman who could write at all in the 14th century more or less had to be most of those. His independent wealth meant he didn’t have to think about money (he often accepted payment in wine). Until him most writers had learnt their ‘craft’ and were employed copying out the Bible ~with some decorations but certainly no textual innovations. When Chaucer learnt his craft he did so in French and Latin ~the languages of writing in England at the time. His early writings are in French and Italian. Only later, when well established did he write in a revolutionary way ~ English. And not just the language was different, he introduced different formats of poetry, and wrote tales that he enjoyed writing ~and English speakers who could read enjoyed reading, or reading to others. He is known as the ‘Father of English Literature’ because he went way out of the known box. Granted he could not have done so without that basic education (in many things), but he is remembered because he wrote ORIGINALLY (in form, content and language). The time was right for him of course (100 years war etc), but I would say his product was ‘for its own sake’, his brilliance was in going outside of and beyond what he had learnt as acceptable/formal knowledge. He dared use knowledge outside of the mould of knowledge. That use became a new mould for others to follow, but that does not detract from his originality. With Chaucer we have an excellent example of somebody who acquired as much formal knowledge as he could, then seems to have cast it aside and write for fun and ‘for its own sake’. Had he done anything else he would not today be the Father of English Literature ~ but I greatly doubt he set out to become that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.