Theodore Zeldin on ‘what is worth knowing?’

What is worth knowing? It’s a good question, given how much there is to know and the impossibility of knowing more than a tiny fraction of the total.

ZeldinTheodore Zeldin’s latest collection of essays, ‘The hidden pleasures of life’ (Quercus, 2015) considers some of the big challenges we face as human beings in his distinctive way; sharing highly individual stories, including his own, to illuminate the universals. Like all his work, it is full of warm humanity, openness to the experiences and perspectives of others and an ability to shift between boundaries and levels of all sorts including the personal and the social.

Simply reading the list of questions which head up each of the essays is thought provoking. As well as ‘What is worth knowing?’ the 29 essay titles  include: ‘What is the greatest adventure of our time? How can prejudices be overcome? What is the point of working so hard? What more can the young ask of their elders? What does it mean to be alive?’

Each of these weighty questions is addressed with a light touch, never dogmatically, moving quickly between ideas while doing them enough justice to get the reader pausing for thought and returning to the thought many times.

Each page has its own different header; this encourages browsing and gives a flavour of what one might find, and each of these headings could be a worthwhile theme for the kind of conversations which Zeldin believes we should all have more of. The page headings for ‘What is worth knowing?’ for instance are:

Too much knowledge. What the Chinese did with knowledge. Islamic and enlightenment encyclopaedias. What use is information if there is no wisdom? What can history and art add to wisdom? ‘Things are not what they appear to be’. How I select what I want to know. Knowledge is the child of disagreement. Science is rooted in conversation. The first moments of waking in the morning. Freedom from preordained targets. An alternative academia.

As an academic and an historian, Zeldin loves knowledge and values research: “I have pursued knowledge … with unquenchable passion”. Nevertheless, he recognises that:

“Education has been a panacea for virtually all human ills for many centuries, and yet, despite all the marvels it has brought, some of humanity’s worst follies have been perpetrated by highly educated individuals and nations.”

He reminds us that we have always had a problem with too much information, as well as too little, because one can never know enough. Encyclopaedias are the ‘ancient monuments’ which reveal this:

“…the most significant encyclopaedias have been those that have not just tried to make information available in an easily digestible form but have given it meaning, to ensure that it leaves people feeling nourished rather than bloated.”

Zeldin doesn’t despair about the ‘blizzards of information’ which we face:

“The information I have accumulated in my head does not all point in the same direction. Instead of disturbing me, this gives me a sense of freedom. Learning is only a beginning.”

Zeldin’s own answer to the question ‘what is worth knowing?’ is:

“What matters is not just how much knowledge I have, but what I do with my knowledge. The process of creating something useful and beautiful out of what I learn does not resemble building a house out of bricks that have been ordered in advance. It is more like painting a picture which gradually takes shape.”

He argues for a kind of ‘knowing through dialogue’, which emphasis the dynamic, transactional aspect of knowledge and its acquisition:

“It is … impossible to know in advance what is worth knowing: only when one piece of knowledge meets another piece of knowledge do they discover whether they have anything to say to each other, and the link is made by the unpredictable spark of an individual imagination… What is very much worth knowing is the shape of the pattern that I impose on the facts that pour into my head, and the shape of the sieve that discards so many of them. That becomes visible only by comparison with other people’s patterns and sieves.”

Zeldin also makes a strong case for broad, liberal, multidisciplinary learning:

“Now that each branch of learning has become so specialised, demanding that attention should be concentrated for many years on a few minute details, the interaction between amateur skills and expert learning has become more precious than ever.”

Aphoristic assertions abound; ‘communication is a battle with uncertainty’, ‘knowledge is the child of disagreement’… while these may not appeal to everyone the overall effect is to engage you at every turn in a profoundly human dialogue about the continuum which includes information, knowledge, know-how and wisdom. Without discussing schools, curricula or pedagogy, this short essay says a great deal about what education should and could be.

‘What is worth knowing?’ is well worth reading and the whole collection is highly recommended.

See also:

What is powerful knowledge? (August 2015)

Learning to love liberal education (October 2014)




About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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