Thursday, May 19, 2011

Love of knowledge fail

I think there is a lot in this paragraph from R. C. Roberts and W. J. Wood, Intellectual Virtues (Oxford, 2007, p.159-60) that I would endorse. But I think it also shows that I am insufficiently discriminating...
The proper lover of knowledge will value some knowledge more than others because some knowledge is more worthy. People differ as to the kinds of truths they take an interest in, and the differences can be differences of intellectual virtue, according to the quality of the goods the people care about. Individuals who are concerned about the truths they read in Science magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly, the National Geographic, the New York Review of Books, or Books and Culture, are in this respect more virtuous than people who are most interested in the truths they read in People magazine or the gossip columns, because the truths that are found there are mostly trivial or even salacious and invidious (that is, the truths aren't vicious, but it is less than virtuous to care about them, or to care much about them). This may sound elitist, but if it is, this is an elitism we cannot avoid. Surely anyone acquainted with intellectual culture knows the distinction between important and trivial knowledge. The aim of liberal arts programs in colleges and universities is not just to transmit a bit of the higher kind of knowledge to their students, but to nurture in them a discriminating end love of knowledge and thus to create in them a distaste—or at any rate, a limited patience—for trivial knowledge. It would be elitist not to spread this kind of education as broadly as possible through the population, but the aim of such an education is properly elitist. It is to produce people with a taste for what is excellent, and this will necessarily distinguish them from people who lack this taste. The right attitude of the educator is what Michael Platt has called “elitism for everybody”.


RJR said...

Three Cambridge degrees later and it seems I'm still not educated. Hurray! I shall remain uneducated me, and take delight in whatever sorts of knowledge catch my eye, from the US Center for Disease Control's zombie attack preparedness plan to this (NSFW) rap battle between Napoleons Bonaparte and Dynamite, dropping in on MIT's amazing OpenCourseWare on the way.

In the meantime Roberts and Wood are free to get on with whatever it is they're doing. I see what they're getting at, but a large part of what we ought to know about is humanity, and I think that what they're advocating could involve the "educated" being less educated about humankind, its intrinsic characteristics and interests, and the ways in which things matter to people. I consider my omnivorous ways more virtuous.

Thornton said...

I wouldn't disagree with this either. But isn't this just a newer version of Mill's doctrine about "those competent to judge" the difference between Socrates satisfied and a pig dissatisfied?