When Did We Become Hostile to Knowledge?



In the last ten months, I have had two knees replaced, participated in months of rehab, and relearned how to go up and down stairs with alternating feet. If I had not had my knees replaced, I would soon have been limited to a wheelchair. I have great respect and admiration for my orthopedic surgeon, for the anesthesiologist who kept me unaware of the surgery, for the internist who helped me deal with drug allergies.

But a number of times in the course of this process, I have heard people say about my orthopedist, “Well, he’s just a carpenter.”  I have to admit that during the first surgery I heard the hammers and the saws that he was using, through a foggy distance that made me think the noise was happening next door, but to call an orthopedic surgeon “just a carpenter” discounts the years of training he has. Certainly carpentry is a craft, but if a board is misplaced, or a nail is bent in the process, it can be redone. Knee replacement involves understanding the muscles, the blood vessels, the nerves as well as the bone, but it also involves the person to whom the knee belongs. Orthopedic surgeons have to have knowledge of more than just bones. Orthopedic surgeons have five years of training beyond their four years of medical school. They have been taught by surgeons who have accumulated years of experience on top of that training. Surgeons continue studying the best ways to help people walk again. They keep learning.

I am not going to dwell further on orthopedics here, but I use this example because it seems to me to illustrate a disturbing trend in our society. We distrust knowledge. We not only distrust it, we denigrate it and often we, as a society, are downright hostile about those who are knowledgeable. The place where this is most obvious is in our politicians’ and our citizens’ attitudes toward climate change.  Most climate scientists concur that human activity is contributing significantly to changes in our climate, yet we continue to have people who deny that this is so. The people who deny the human connection to climate change generally have done no research, have done no reading on the subject, and base their opinion either on some politician’s distortion of science, or on some intuitive notion that fits into their narrow view of weather.

I think that some of this distrust comes from our need for simple answers. We would like an “expert” to tell us exactly what to expect. We do not like getting “I don’t know” as an answer for a question. We want to say “What do you mean, you don’t know?”.  What I’d like to suggest is that we learn to trust the people who say “I don’t know” more than we trust the people who say, “I know based on not much information.” My orthopedic surgeon sometimes answers a question with “I don’t know.” He made it explicitly clear that he sometimes makes mistakes. I expected him to do his best, to rely on his extensive training, but I also accept that he is human.

When I was growing up, when I asked my parents questions about something, their usual response was “look it up.” I would go to the encyclopedia we kept on the living room bookshelf. More than that, however, I remember how to spell encyclopedia (as do many of my generation) from listening to Jiminy Cricket sing the word on The Mickey Mouse Club, where he encouraged young watchers to look things up. We have become a culture where we want to be told the answers, when in reality, the answers keep changing because  knowledge keeps changing. Instead of denigrating those with knowledge, we need to celebrate them and celebrate their ability to continue to learn. We should take them as models.


4 thoughts on “When Did We Become Hostile to Knowledge?

  1. Outstanding post. But I would add two related thoughts. First, the phrase “‘just’ a carpenter” carries its own bias. The best finish carpenter or cabinet maker has as much experience and precision and pride as the best neurosurgeon — if not the level of risk. And I believe hostility to knowledge has been around a long, long time, as an unfortunate adjunct to populism. Sarah Palin shined a bright light on this when she dubbed the educated the “elite,” and made it the most negative epithet in her strange vocabulary.

  2. I think we have become hostile to knowledge because we “learned” all these facts that are no longer true- whole grains are good now grains make you dumb and ill .K-12 is about passing tests about facts and then as you become adults these facts are not true. So why believe any “facts’ because in a few years we will find out from the experts that those facts are false. The history we learned is not the history we now know. What teacher stands in front of their class and says, “What you learn today will probably not be true in five years?” What student would really engage with them?

  3. that’s where curiosity and an inquiring mind come in….. we used to think that malaria came from bad air.. (hence the name) and now we know better.. we need to think of knowledge as always changing, not never changing…

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