How do we value knowledge? How do we measure the worth of what we know?
Most of my loyal readers know that I teach literature and writing at the college level. I've been doing that for 10 years now (wow, how the time flies). When I tell people that "I teach writing & literature" (or sometimes I just come right out and say it... "I teach English") I typically get one of two reactions. Either people's eyes glaze over and they mumble something like "I was never good at English" or "I hated my English classes," or they light up and say something about what they've been reading or what they liked about a lit class or writing experience they had.Both are reasonable responses, I suppose (though I have never said to my friends who sell cars or build houses "Oh, I HATE selling cars!" or "I can't stand floor joists!").
Not once have I ever had that respectful silence or awed look that suggests that what I do really matters, however. Not in the way that being a doctor (the medical kind) or a social worker matters. In fact, all in all I suspect that most people put "English teacher" on a par with some kind of circus act or reality TV show. It just doesn't matter.
Knowing about the impetus for Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury isn't crucial knowledge, after all. Differentiating between metaphor and simile (not to mention synecdoche and metonymy) won't save some one's life. Being able to recite a Hopkins poem isn't necessary skill for contemporary survival. Is it?
(Now, lest I get a bunch of outraged replies to this post, I know that I'm being a bit overdramatic. Hang in there. I'm making a point.)
Setting aside for the moment the well-known irony that our society chooses to trust its children to people that it, at the same time, chooses not to pay very well (comparatively speaking), what I'm wondering is how we tend to rank what we know. Of all the things you have learned in life, which are the most important? Why? What makes them important? How do we use them?
How does knowing, for example, how to change a tire compare to knowing when your child is old enough to eat honey? In what ways is knowledge about making a garden thrive different than the ability to keep a computer running efficiently? What about the ability to solve crossword puzzles or complete that d*&# Sudoku game (the former I can do, the latter I cannot)? Where do those skills rank in the grand scheme of things?
Perhaps I'm also asking about why we choose to do the things we do (for a living, I mean). What made me an English teacher instead of a chiropractor or entomologist? What made you do the "thing" you do?
Of course, I'm also asking about other kinds of knowledge-- the spiritual salt that many of us have tasted. What would you say is the relationship between that kind of knowledge and other kinds?
What is one to do when concepts seem to be conflict? What does a Mormon or Catholic geologist do, for example, with the apparent contradiction between contemporary knowledge about the age of the earth (4 billion years old?) and biblical literalness which gives a something different answer (more like 7,000 years)?
I'm just sure that I'm opening a can of worms here, but give me your thoughts. Or, to be briefer, tell me the one bit of knowledge that you can't live without.
Just wondering . . .