A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope (An Essay on Criticism, 1709)
I had another run-in with ‘little learning’ today. (By now you know, of course, that by ‘little learning’ I mean both learning which is perfunctory, incomplete and superficial, as well as that which is diminutive and stunted – the kind of learning which reduces its subject to a caricature of what it is really is. With apologies to Pope, of course) This time, the guilty party was detailing her little understanding of communication techniques. Oh me. How bad it was. Fortunately, when she got to the third method of dealing with what makes you unhappy in a particular social interaction (which was walking away from it) I saw my gap and did exactly that.
We’ve discussed the great charlatans of our age and how they intentionally misconstrue the great ideas for personal profit – old Deepak and his ‘quantum’ mumbo-jumbo being chief among them. And I know we’ve also discussed how the rising plague of ‘life coaches’ and ‘motivational inspirers’ have latched on to little cartoonish versions of neuroplasticity and the wonders of the brain. But, dear Odhran, we must now consider that the problem of little learning is becoming ever more widespread as more and more people obtain a connection to the World Wide Web and are thus able to quote Buzzfeed and Facebook. They usurp the great wild thoughts of our age and distill them into submission. They sip shallow draughts, Odhran, and they are intoxicated. But worse still, like a much inebriated barfly, they seem more inclined than ever to share their drunken truthiness with everyone they can throw an arm around. And then the final insult: some of these stumbling sophists are getting paid to spray their spittle as life coaches and motivational speakers.
Is modern society so desperate for upliftment? My feeling is that it has so much to do with the ‘cult of shortcutism’ we spoke of last year. (You’ll remember how we bemoaned the latter day trend of trying to find a ‘hack’ for everything from diets to becoming well-read, where the truth is that only hard work ever really works.) People nowadays are so rushed, and their attention so widely split, that they now even seek a quick fix for the spirit.
A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing. But it seems it is so predominantly with adults. Many of my young charges have but a little learning, but they have the humility to know that their learning is small, and they seem to want to find out more and more. They express their learnings as questions and mostly do not presume to have knowledge they don’t really possess. And there is hope here, Odhran. They desire to drink deep of the Pierian spring and to think soberly.
I only wish I could give them more time to do so. And keep them from belittling their learning as they grow older and duller.
And then there’s the topic of modern leadership which has also begun to distress me, but I will not overtax your patience any further in this epistle. Perhaps we can talk again in person in the near future.
PS: I’m thinking of starting an anonymous organization which awards sarcastic certificates to any self-styled little learner in the field they pretend to know. We could have one for Medicine, Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Education and even Physics. Of course, we would prefix each of them with the letters BS, as in: So-and-So is hereby awarded the title Master of BSPsychiatry. And then we could add a little detail at the end – perhaps something like ‘This certificate entitles the bearer to gloss over all new developments in their awarded field, to grasp it only on the simplest level while pretending they know all there is to know about it, and to misconstrue it as they wish.’
Your suggestions, as always, are most welcome.
PPS: Isn’t it sad about Oliver Sacks? In my present frame of mind, I’m sure it will not be long before we begin hearing how the findings of Oliver Sacks can be used for fun and profit.
I am not in a good space, Odhran, but I look forward to your reply.