Monday, July 3, 2017

"We must know above all what it is that we do not know."

...[I]n a world where the acceleration of knowledge and technology increases exponentially, the inner truth of education lies in recognizing its limits. We must know above all what it is that we do not know.

This conception strikes me as fundamentally humble, not just towards one’s peers or superiors, but towards the unknown future generations. So many current leaders, thinkers, and writers are absolutely sure of their own values and achievements; so many of them are absolutely certain of the superiority of their moral vision to that of their predecessors, and of the utility of their perceptions to posterity. Adams was relentless in his denial of this (after all) very human urge; he looks back on his own preconceptions of youth and concludes that anything he would try to say to future generations would be worse than useless. Underneath all of his elegant melancholy is an asperity that is unsparing of himself, that is ruthless towards sentimentality, cant, moral certitude, all of the pious superiorities that so often accompanied the 19th-century idea of progress. It’s a little frightening; the intensity of Adams’s world-historical skepticism approaches nihilism. This, I think, more than its somewhat convoluted theories or its value as a historical document, is the heart of The Education’s continued appeal. Its emotional valence is remarkably bracing to anyone who finds himself out of tune with the received notions of a culture. ....