Saturday, December 6, 2008

"An Educated Man"

This is a bit of a continuation from the previous post.

As I said yesterday, that eighth grade Humanities course really set me on a quest for knowledge and wisdom. I wanted to learn, I wanted to understand, and most of all, I wanted to be edjimacated. In fact, that was our final exam: a response to the question, "What is an educated man?"

I don't recall exactly what I wrote, but I am sure it was something along these lines: An educated man will have a strong background in art and literature and culture. He will understand philosophical ideas and he will be able to contribute meaningfully to conversations. He will possess wisdom, not just basic facts of knowledge. Etc.

Well, this is all fine and dandy, and for a long time, this was the ideal I strove to emulate. I wanted to be an Educated Man (gender, of course, notwithstanding). I envied my teachers who seemed to know everything about everything. They were always bringing up references to works I had never heard of, and trying vainly to explain to us how John Donne's Meditations (whatever those were) had greatly influenced Paul Simon, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other songwriters, authors, and artists. I was jealous. I wanted to have knowledge on instant recall just like that. I wanted to be able to make instantaneous connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. I wanted to understand this overwhelming network of literary influence. I wanted to impress people with my knowledge.

Well, four-plus years of education down the road, and I can honestly say that I've come a long way toward meeting my goal. I can drop a quote from Bertrand Russell into a conversation without giving it a second thought, and I am disappointed when the confused recipient doesn't understand the reference. I can quote lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by memory. I can clearly and concisely expound upon the theory of The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Veil.

But these are facts. They don't get me anywhere. Even though I do have a satisfactory degree of understanding, well, it's not enough. I want more. I want to know everything. And that, of course, will never happen. I could, of course, compensate with some more name-and-quote-dropping:

"Well didst thou speak, Athena's wisest son! 'All that we know is, nothing can be known.'"--Lord Byron

But that, of course, is not my conclusion. I stole it. Anybody could rip that quote from a website without understanding where it came from or what it means. Parroting information only gets you so far.

So now, I think, I must revise my definition of The Educated Man, and therefore I must change a few goals in my life.

An Educated Man will not only know, but he will know both when it is and when it is not appropriate to share his knowledge. He will realize his own limitations, even though he constantly strives to improve himself. He will never be satisfied with what he knows, and he will never be content to rest on his laurels. He will always be willing to listen to the opinions of others, and he will never think that his own ideas are infallible. He must always be open to change. He must not think himself superior for all his knowledge, because he understands that wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing and do not have to go hand-in-hand. He will, throughout life, seek enlightenment, not because he believes he can truly achieve something so momentous, but because he understands that the real triumph is the journey itself.


I just sorted through the old box of nostalgia my mother keeps stashed in the attic, and unfortunately could not find the essay on The Educated Man. It must have been tossed out as a less-than-exemplary example of my schoolwork. I did, however, find another test from the same class and the same time period. One of the questions, and my response, follows.

7. You have just finished a college level course in Humanities. Knowing what you now know about history, theology, art, music, theatre, dance, philosophy, etc., please finish the following:

I used to think.....but now I think....

I used to think that philosophy was very dull and depressing. I never knew much about philosophy. Now I think that every one of us is a philosopher, whether we publish our beliefs or not. Philosophers fascinate me, and I like to learn about how philosophy changed throughout the years.

Hey, 14-year-old self--I concur!

(and artwork credit to Rembrandt)

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