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by William H. Benson

November 26, 2009

     In last week’s New York Times Book Review, I caught the following comment: “Academics lack perspective. In a debate on whether the world is round, they would argue, ‘no,’ because it is actually an ‘oblate spheroid.’ Such people suffer from ‘the curse of knowledge’: the inability to imagine what it’s like not to know something that they now know.” Those phrases, “the curse of knowledge,” and “the inability to imagine not knowing,” struck me.

     I then read a quote from the October 26 issue of Newsweek. The cover story bandied about the idea of colleges reducing their programs from four years to three. Diane Ravitch, professor at New York University, argued, that “it was a bad idea.”

     “Most of the students,” she said, “who are going to enter college in the next few years are ill-prepared for course-work. I should not say most, but anywhere from a third to a half require remediation of basic skills. They are very poorly prepared in mathematics. They know little of history or literature or science or the arts or geography. They have not studied a foreign language, and to reduce their higher education from four years to three years means that they’ll have 25% less education.”

     Professor Ravitch is right: freshmen students entering college are green, they lack sophistication and an extensive background, but that is why they are going to college in the first place—to remedy that defect. Some arrive on campus wanting an education, the accompanying credentials, and the chance to earn respectability and a career. They probably cannot even hope to suffer someday from the “curse of knowledge.”

     Learning is hard work, often a struggle to tame the emotions. Constant study grinds down the best of students. Impending tests terrify. Bad grades on papers disappoint the strongest, for human beings are not only thinking beings but emotional ones too. It is like two vortexes are set spinning inside every student, one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, and once the two bump into each other, sparks fly. Reason slams into pride. Facts meet up face to face with envy, and cold calculation crashes into animosity.   

     And yet, once an individual learns a subject, he or she seems to observe the world and others through the prism of only that subject—the curse for knowing something. For example, the psychology majors like to categorize people into either passive or aggressive personalities. The English majors focus in on people’s spoken grammar, their written paragraph construction, or their underlying literary themes.

     The law students are swept up in passionate discussions of the legality or illegality of an act, and the theology students are so quick to point out the fallacies in others’ religious beliefs and practices. The math and science students hold tight to their equations and formulas, and the business students can talk only in terms of dollars.

     Will Rogers once said, “If I can get a person off the subject that he or she was educated in, I usually find an ordinary person, someone interesting who I can talk to.”

     The American people believe in education and training, and as a result, our universities, both private and state, are the envy of the world. Former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, recently completed a year of study in the U.S. at the Library of Congress and was asked what in the U.S. impressed him most. “The American university,” he replied. “The greatness and the autonomy of the American university. There is nothing in the world quite like it.”

     Ben Franklin said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance for a season.”

     Adam and Eve were instructed to eat from only the Tree of Life but not the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, for if they did, they were told, they would surely die. It is astonishing that this earliest of the world’s thinkers, the writer of Genesis, seemed to sense that there was indeed a curse hidden inside knowledge.

     Indeed, doctors and surgeons are expected to perform miracles and cure people who have abused their bodies over a lifetime. Other people hope that their lawyer can extricate them out of the precarious jams that they, often enough, have created themselves. Marriage counselors are asked to untangle the strangest of family dynamics, and judges are expected to set matters straight—often an impossible thing.

     The curse of knowledge: once we know, we are expected to use that which we know, and if not too proud, we might try to imagine not knowing what we now know.

     Know this one thing: Thursday is Thanksgiving. Have a great holiday!