Thursday, August 13, 2009

Which knowledge . . .

Of all the things you know, which is (or are) the most valuable?

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 . . .


Clint Carter said...

You pose some very interesting questions today. Here are my answers, although they are probably all grammatically incorrect and spelled wrong. (writing a comment on an English Professor's blog always makes me nervous)

I work with computers because I love to work with computers. I have tried other jobs but I always migrate back to computers. With that said, I have also chosen Twin Falls as my Home. These two choices limit my income producing ability, but I am ok with that.

As far as knowledge goes, I have always felt that I fall short on what I know but more and more I notice that people have their own expertise. They also their own blind spots.

For example, I always feel outsmarted by Doctors, both medical and educational. However, I always find it surprising when a doctor doesn't know anything about computers. I just assume that they know everything about everything. Maybe it is just a misconception on my part. I guess Doctors are just like me, they have just had more training and education in their field of work than most people.

The world places value on people's knowledge differently than say, a Church. I always find it interesting that people place a HIGH value on the opinion of an actor or a sports star. What do they know? I would much rather get an opinion from Dan Stallings. (a friend of the family) Although the world could care less about Brother Stallings, he is the one person that would have the right prospective and personal experience to give me advice and council.

Was this too long? Oops!

Patricia Murphy, a resident of said...

Can of worms indeed! I'll just say that all of those years in grad school sometimes chafe a bit when I have to do something like (this weekend's job) rebuilding a front step so my porch doesn't fall down this winter. As a homeowner, I often wish I had more "practical" knowledge.

Would I give it up? Of course not -- the unclear pronoun reference here means all of the engagement with various texts that has gotten me through some tough times AND allowed me to do something I find worthwhile and fulfilling (most of the time).

I feel outsmarted by people who can do more "hands on" things than I can. Thanks to the Internet (and the fact that I'm really cheap) I'm learning. So I guess the short of it is that I really value what the world deems "pragmatic" knowledge as much as I value whatever it is the world thinks we do.