Knowledge in England

In common with many arts graduates, I delight in accumulating mostly useless knowledge. Since I’m not the brightest person I know, I tend to assume that this is knowledge also accumulated by everyone else. Interacting with a variety of different people suggests that this is not the case, and so I end up feeling bad about making other people feel stupid, by knowing things they don’t. In this country, we’re somewhat conditioned to trend towards the lowest common denominator in social situations. We bond over a mutual fondness for True Blood, not over a debate on press freedom. Playing Trivial Pursuit and knowing substantially more than other players is embarrassing, rather than a source of pride. Most recently, I knew that the John Irving novel with an armadillo on the front cover was A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was on at the National about ten years ago, and the programme had an armadillo on the front, so I guessed that the novel did too. Everyone else’s surprise was very surprising to me. As Oscar Wilde writes in A Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Knowledge would be fatal. It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.”

Of course that is rather sarcastic, and a reference to the superficiality of the aesthete, but when I look for quotes about knowledge in German, I find, that has structured the quotes according to author, time period, type of writing (poetry or prose). The English version just jumbles it all together and lets Google sort it out. Perhaps Germans are overly preoccupied with knowledge, as a result of the Enlightenment, but it hasn’t exactly harmed them as a trading nation. I can find six unattributed sayings, like this one:

“Erst wissen, dann wägen, dann wagen”

This means “first know, then decide, then dare”. The anglosaxon mentality is rather the opposite: you learn by doing, and knowledge that has no application is increasingly viewed as unnecessary. Why know about history, if real estate will make you a fortune? We have no influence on geopolitics as individuals, so why bother understanding the origins of Sino-Japanese antipathy, or the mistakes of colonial land attribution in Africa? The negative outcomes of the future are not altered by knowing why cultural tensions have come about. In the German part of my mind, there doesn’t have to be any purpose to the accumulation of knowledge. I am just curious about how different nations have such deep seated rifts that they end up either starting a war with someone else, or imploding in civil war, and pointlessly reflect on the self-perpetuating tragedy of ordinary people losing their children or their parents to a conflict they started out not caring about. Once they have lost something, anyone would join a cause and pursue it to the death.

This post was actually supposed to be about the futility of gardening. It’s drifted somewhat off topic.

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