In the previous post in this series, I addressed a lie prevalent in our culture: that knowledge is only valuable to us as far as we are able to make use of it. If you weren’t convinced, just consider the messages our culture sends: A mother who ‘just’ wants to stay at home is wasting her degree. Reading fiction, regardless of its caliber, is a waste of time. The Sunday sermon without an action point is worthless.
The consequences of a utilitarian knowledge
A utilitarian view of knowledge lays the emphasis of education upon that which is outside of us, be it the teacher, the pastor, the book, even the knowledge itself. If any of those people or objects fail to leave us with an insightful ‘nugget’ or motivating action point, they are effectively worthless. Our attitude becomes a demanding ‘What can I get out of this?’ As Charlotte Mason said, this puts us in danger of ‘receiving much teaching with little knowledge’.
When we are constantly on the lookout for information that we can put to use, we are blinded from much which might be fruitful for our character. CS Lewis explores this idea in An Experiment in Criticism. In this book, he distinguishes between two groups of people, those who ‘use’ art and those who ‘receive’ it.
Of the first group, and their interaction with a work of art, he says,
“[…]Comments, and nearly all attention to the picture, cease soon after it has been bought. It soon dies for its owners…It has been used and its work is done.,,While you retain this attitude you treat the picture…as a self-starter for certain imaginative emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it…can do to you.”C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
In other words, when we seek knowledge for utilitarian purposes, we become a people of ‘sound bites’. We seek little quotes that we can use to show off, but we know little of the thoughts, ideas, and theories behind them. We are in grave danger of assuming another person’s opinion without having thoughtfully made it our own. Ideas that should convict us and bring us to repentance sift out of our minds like sand through fingers.
The emphasis of education cannot be placed on what is useful.
A few months ago, The Atlantic ran an article on reading comprehension in the United States. As high-stakes standardized testing has become ubiquitous, more children are pulled from classrooms in order to receive teaching in ‘reading comprehension’. If students struggle to perform well in this area, the logic follows that they need more instruction.
The article points out that this is likely preventing students from accessing what they need to actually increase their comprehension. Research has shown that when students have knowledge about a topic or subject area, the student’s reading comprehension improves and they excel. Struggling students don’t need utilitarian instruction in how to comprehend what they read – they need a broad education that introduces them to as many areas of knowledge as possible. At that point, reading comprehension will follow.
A utilitarian pursuit of knowledge does not take into account that we are born whole people. We are not the sum of what we produce. The emphasis of a mother’s education must shift from this outward focus to an internal receptiveness. To quote again from CS Lewis,
We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes of us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
The responsibility of education is ours.
This brings us to a fork in the road. We can continue, in Lewis’ terms, with the many, pursuing knowledge for what we can do with it. Or, we can take the way of the few. We can grow in an attitude of receptivity. The responsibility to humble ourselves lies on our own shoulders.