On The Decline Of Philomathy

It means “to love learning; to seek acquisition of knowledge and facts.”

It is the most perfect word for how I feel about my education. I am a philomath. I love learning. I love discovering. I love gaining knowledge. I want to know, and I want to know as much as possible.

Among my peers, among those of my generation, though, I often feel like an endangered species.

But that feeling only applies to right now, to me at the age of twenty-three. It certainly wasn’t true when I first started learning. Which, one could easily argue, began as soon as I was born, so let’s limit that definition. By ‘learning’ I mean education, and by education I mean formal education of the form common to most cultures – having knowledge imparted to me which I was meant to learn, in a peer-group environment.

That part of my education began when I was two-and-a-half, in preschool, where I was meant to be taught numbers and colours and shapes and songs – how much of the former three I absorbed from preschool I have no idea, but I do remember being very, very enthusiastic about the songs. And you know what? So were the other fifteen to twenty toddlers in my group. All of us, excited to the point of hyperactive hysteria to learn the hand motions that went with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

I’m pretty sure this is true of every toddler who is ever taught anything, though I might be wrong. This is, after all, a personal reflection.

But anyway. Getting back to said reflection.

If I trace, as I recall – and I have a fairly clear recollection of my early childhood (thank you Supreme Being for my memory skills) – the level of enthusiasm shown by my peers towards the knowledge being imparted to them, the chart in my head shows a clear declining trend over the years. We all started out as eager beaver toddlers who couldn’t wait to memorize this week’s new sing-along – and as time wore on, somewhere along the way most of us lost that eagerness, that enthusiasm, that willingness and desire to learn.

Well, no. That’s not quite accurate. It’s just that it seems to end up directed away from gaining actual personal world knowledge that could be applied first-hand, that could potentially be personally useful, and towards frivolous trivia like celebrity gossip, personal gossip, sports statistics, etc, you get what I mean.

Before anyone gets up in arms about that last sentence, let me clarify: I don’t mean being interested in these things is necessarily bad. It’s fun and it’s entertaining and it’s a distraction from the everyday, and that’s okay. That’s all well and good.I just don’t see the point of investing more time and interest in them at the cost of your actual, formal, time-and-resource-consuming education, which is meant to be providing you with a solid knowledge base from which you can launch your career. Or at the cost of developing some skill – any skill, cooking, mechanical repair, playing the guitar, writing – that could potentially be an alternative career, if the one your degree equips you for turns out to be a bad fit.

And no, don’t point me to good exam results. Exam results, forgive me, don’t count for sh*t in this context. It’s easy to pass for competent in an exam situation – all you have to do is know what’s going to score high marks, and shoot straight for that target. In fact I would argue that the system of examinations and testing is probably a cause of this decline in knowledge-seeking: instead being about learning more, formal education has become about scoring the right grades, and that means knowing just enough to get the grade you want. No more, no less.

It frightens me that many of my peers have adopted this need-to-know approach to learning. It frightens me because it’s not that big a step from thinking ‘this is all I need to know to pass’ to going ‘this is all I need to know to survive’. It frightens me because the words ‘need to know’ carry an unpleasant undertone of hidden agendas and murky motives – of unquestioning support of the status quo because hey, this is all I need to know, right, so why bother trying to find out anything more?

But I digress.

I’m not really covering any new ground here. All this and more have been highlighted by experts in education long before the thought ever occured to me, and any solution that I might naively offer has already been offered, tried out, tested, found effective or not, in various different regions and contexts, already. This is, as I’ve said, personal reflection. Just me, trying to sort out in writing why it bothers me so very much when someone raises their hand in class and asks, “Is this going to be in the exam?”

Because we’re supposed to be better than that by now, right? We’re adults, in tertiary education. We’re meant to be learning critical thinking – which is, as I see it, learning how to think for ourselves. And how exactly does it help us reach that particular goal if all we’re concerned with is knowing what we need to know? 

Part of it, as I said before, is how we assess knowledge. Part of it is our collective human cultural norm of accepting authority – a norm so ingrained that students routinely struggle with the idea of critical review, one of the core tenets of academia. And part of it is our – and by this I now mean my generation – tendency towards erroneous conflations: like conflating unique and valuable; popular and good (and the complementary unknown/unpopular and good, for the hipsters among us); interesting and useful. And what this leads to is mis-prioritization, to mis-allocation of effort, and time, and enthusiasm – and society as a whole suffers, because when you fill your mind with trivia, you end up becoming a trivial-minded person, and the proliferation of trivial-minded people leads to the decline of culture and art and knowledge.

That’s really not the world I want to live in. It shouldn’t be the world you want, either.

So maybe – just maybe – do something about it. Try to keep an open mind. Try to look forward to learning whatever you’re going to learn today. Try to make an effort to broaden your knowledge base in your own time. Try to be a philomath – and if you already are, then try to be a better one. God knows the world needs more of us.

Misha’ari Weerabangsa


Image Courtesy of www.philomathy.org

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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