Why does knowledge matter?

Knowledge is increasingly justified in terms of the practical and instrumental goals it can help us individually and collectively achieve in society. A credentialing process. An opportunity for a better job. A means of identifying solutions to a specific problem.

As a business educator I have a lot of respect for the practical and instrumental value of knowledge.

So did Wilhelmm von Humboldt who, in the early nineteenth century, argued that:

People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens.

Humboldt argued that knowledge was important because of its role in the moral and civic fabric of society writ large. Humboldt’s model of higher education thus presumed that knowledge is both an end in itself and a means for accomplishing other ends. The Humboldtian model is one of the foundational intellectual influences underlying the holistic idea of liberal arts education which is the prevailing traditional model around which most universities are organized today.

Notably, however, Humboldt’s thinking was grounded in the Enlightenment which pitted reason against tradition and empiricism against dogma. It may not be surprising, then, that the political discourse of our own time has similarly pitted secular higher education (as an ostensibly “progressive” institution) against notions of religious tradition (as an ostensibly “conservative” institution). Today, universities have become symbols in contemporary culture wars which—as the well-known and dramatically over-simplified story goes—similarly pit conservative religious communities against secular liberal humanists. One result is a growing anti-intellectual thread within conversative political discourse in places like the United States. Higher education is seen as politically suspect to such conservatives who argue that, under the guise of “value-free inquiry”, many liberal arts universities have followed Humboldt’s lead in positioning reason as oppositional to tradition.

This has not been my experience with the liberal arts, but I do think it is fair to note that Humboldt and other Enlightenment thinkers oversold the novelty of their philosophical enterprise.

Yes, Humboldt’s model of education was based on secular humanism. But it built upon intellectual architecture that had been in place for thousands of years. Many wisdom traditions treat knowledge as an end in itself for individuals and a measure of the success of societies. These wisdom traditions—as well as their secular extension in the Humboldtian educational ideal—are an underlying justification for the traditional, but increasingly contested, idea of liberal arts education in systems of higher education.

So, in an era increasingly defined by moral and ideological divides, the chorus of voices from across such wisdom traditions represents a potential way to build common ground around the importance of higher education and knowledge in society.

Happy are those who find wisdom and those who gain understanding. Her profit is better than silver, and her gain better than gold… Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore, get wisdom and in all thy getting, get understanding (Proverbs 3:13-14; 4:7)

Mind precedes thoughts, mind is their chief, their quality is made by mind, if with a base mind one speaks or acts, through that suffering follows him like a wheel follows the ox’s foot. (Dhammapada 1)

The most complete gift of God is a life based on knowledge. (Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib)

Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace (Confucius)

The glory of God is intelligence (Doctrine and Covenants 93: 36)

To me this polyphony of voices points to an immense potential for common ground across contemporary cultural divides in treasuring knowledge not only for its usefulness but also for its sacredness.

The quest for holistic knowledge is an ancient one that is far too important to fall between the ideological fissures of the evanescent political contests of our age.

Trevor Israelsen

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