Franke: Dumbing Down by Knowing Too Much

July 24, 2023

by Mark Frank

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? “The Rock” by T. S. Elliot

We live in an age of sensory overload. We are tied to gadgets that bombard us with snippets of information which are simply endless data points that never seem to tie together. Whether 30 second sound bites on TV, single sentence news headlines crossing the chyron or, worst of all, short videos on those ubiquitous social media outlets, it never ends.

We are told everything. We learn nothing.

In the quote above T. S. Eliot bemoans such a state of affairs as if he were living today. He wrote those lines in 1934 as part of a pageant to raise funds for the building of new churches in Depression era London. I owe thanks to author Simon Winchester who used this quote to introduce his latest book, “Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic.”

Eliot recognized a hierarchy of human intellectual achievement. It is supposed to work like this: We gather bits of information that can be assembled into a new piece of knowledge that, when added to our base of accumulated knowledge and with sufficient contemplation, becomes wisdom.

Plato listed wisdom as one of the four virtues which lead to a moral life, the highest human achievement. I can only wonder what Plato would think if he could observe our society today. The cynic Diogenes, Plato’s philosophical nemesis, might find himself quite at home but I can hardly credit that to be a good thing.

I first encountered this kind of hierarchy when I spent several years early in my higher education career as a manager in the university’s IT department. This was the era of the relational database’s ascendancy. These huge databases were built on a simple mathematical model designed to hold essentially unlimited amounts of simple pieces of data. Pulling related data out in a report was designated the information level. Integrating multiple databases at a high level to support managerial decision making was called the knowledge level. Sound familiar?

I have oversimplified but the same hierarchy is at play here as in the more general intellectual level referenced by Eliot above. The major difference is the addition of a granular data level at the bottom and the absence of a wisdom level at the top, unless the frightening advent of AI counts. It makes one wonder if there were some created universal system for human intellectual activity moving mankind upward from simple observation to absolute truth.

I realize my analysis flies in the face of current educational wisdom that technology obviates the need for students to process information themselves. Reading, writing and computation are antiquated tools no longer useful in a digital world when you can just look it up on the “artificially intelligent” computer. True, but that portends a different problem in future decades as this generation will not have the ability to advance intellectually from information to knowledge to wisdom. You can’t lose what you never had. There are no shortcuts to wisdom.

Eliot’s poetry has been likened by literary experts to that found in the Psalms. The Psalms were written as poetry and perhaps lose some of that effect in translation. But not all of it; my church chants a psalm each Sunday. Chanting rather than reading somehow gives the words more vibrancy and the meaning greater impact.

Look to these lines of Eliot for this effect:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

He then asks this question: “Where is the Life we have lost in living?”

Good question, that.

To some he may have seemed a twentieth century Luddite, decrying the technological advances made during his lifetime. Now think of our lifetime or that of our children and grandchildren. How much knowledge or wisdom comes from these perpetual interruption machines we all carry? Virtually none, I would suggest.

I am trying hard not to be hypocritical about this. I have a cell phone although with the ringer permanently turned off. Still, I find it hard not to check it every time I feel a buzzing sensation in my back pocket. I gather lots of information from it, most of which I forget within three minutes or less.

My grandchildren cannot imagine a world without cell phones, tablets and social media. I can, and miss it.

Eliot asked the following question and I will leave it to you to answer it for yourself. You can guess how he and I would respond.

“With all the technological advances and change, is mankind happier or wiser than he was 100 years ago?”

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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