Dear Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all,
In The American Scholar, his speech to Harvard graduates, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “Life is a dictionary!” encouraging Americans, especially the young scholars in front of him, to trust their own experiences: direct, sensory experience in nature, if they truly wanted to live a life of learning. You can read all you want and spend all your time in the library, blindly accepting the dogma that’s been handed down to you by rationalists who supposedly know better than you, he said (in so many words), but that will never substitute for discovering the world, nature, and your own inner nature, through personal experience. It was unconventional back then and sadly still is today.
In our Information Age, we can know just about everything, everyone, and everywhere. That’s how you became the Know-it-alls! We spend far more time in front of screens, typing and clicking, safely in our minds (often completely unaware of our own bodies), safe from nature. It’s “out there” and we are “in here,” separate, unequal.
The library of Emerson’s time is the Internet of our time. Young “scholars” today look at almost every aspect of their lives: the world, nature, and themselves (selfies) through the lenses of their iPhones.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), our disconnection from nature causes a shrunken sensory world, impoverished experiences, and a sort of “cultural autism” which include “feelings of isolation and containment” (p.64). We are literally trapped indoors, inside our own minds, as we surf the Web, thinking we are “everywhere” yet sadly, not anywhere at all, not even in our bodies. Knowledgeable, but not. Connected, yet disconnected.
Louv quotes Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst, who says, “What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life…It’s a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional” (p.65).
Ah, Ya think?
Louv goes on to write in his chapter subsection entitled “Losing our Senses,”
“Today, the life of the senses is literally, electrified. One obvious contributor is electronics: television and computers. But simpler, early technologies played important roles. Air-conditioning, for example…Few of us are about to trade our air-conditioners for fans. But one price of progress is seldom mentioned: a diminished life of the senses…as human beings, we need direct, natural experiences; we require fully-activated senses in order to feel fully alive (my italics).
Twenty-first-century Western culture accepts the view that because of omnipresent technology we are awash in data. But in this information age vital information is missing. Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing below the ‘transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it,’ as D.H. Lawrence put it, in a relatively obscure but extraordinary description of his own awakening to nature’s sensory gift. Lawrence described his awakening in Taos, New Mexico, as an antidote to the ‘know-it-all state of mind,’ that poor substitute for wisdom and wonder:
‘Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe and the globe is done.
This quote is true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean and saying you know all about the sea…
As a matter of fact, our great grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: ‘It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.
We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.’” (p.57-59)
And, so here you sit Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all: efficient, progressive, high achieving, American travelers and patriots, with the world (of information) at your fingertips sitting on chairs in your air-conditioned schools and cubicles Googling away for answers.
A Little Birdy
p.s. Here’s some food for thought:
- Might an antidote to the “know-it-all” state of mind be Shunryu Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind?
- Where does “schooling” fit into such delusional thinking amongst our young people?
- Why are kids locked up in the institution of public school all day completely disconnected from more direct, sensory experiences?
- Has the institute of American public education actively supported a disconnection from nature and instead promoted the values of technology and utility to ensure a dumbed down work force so numbed out and disassociated from their true nature that they won’t ever revolt?
- Do you think about nature as something “out there,” separate from you?
For Further Reading:
Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, (2008) Workman Publishing, N.Y..
Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Leo Babauta’s Zenhabits post for further reading on the concept of Beginner’s Mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar
John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Complusory Schooling
Zachary Slayback’s The End of School
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest