Sometimes I make running lists of things I don't know. I'll open a moleskine notebook or take out a narrow lined legal pad and periodically jot down things I really don't know in the course of a day's reading. The list is always depressingly long. It's the scholar's equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. The other day I was standing before a sarcophagus that featured the nine Muses, and I realized that I could not name them all if my life depended on it. This is the sort of thing I should know—but I don't. It was embarrassing. I cannot name the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (I can get to about five with confidence). I can name the Seven Deadly Sins—I think—because I have been guilty of all of them at one time or another. I can name all the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the secretaries of Thomas Jefferson's cabinet, but if you gave me a dollar for every one of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention I could name, I'd have to settle for about ten dollars (Hamilton) rather than a Ulysses S. Grant ($50).
If you gave me an outline map of North Dakota, with the county lines drawn, but no names attached, I reckon I could list about 30 of the 53 counties, miss-locating perhaps two or three. But two of my closest friends could name all 53 in their sleep. Does this matter? Well, when you read that such and such an incident happened in Logan County, and you are not sure quite where Logan County is, that probably matters. Being able to rattle them off at a cocktail party is not quite the "babe magnet" that it once was. I once heard Garrison Keillor sing a song naming all 87 Minnesota counties on the David Letterman Show. Letterman looked at him as if he were listing the history of psoriasis ointments, and went to commercial.
Now you will say, perhaps, that information is not necessarily knowledge, or that the coming of the Internet and the hand-held smart phone means that we don't have to commit much to memory anymore, because there it all is at our fingertips, out there in cyberspace just waiting to be plucked down. Why clutter the brain with mere data points? But for me, old fashioned fuddy duddy that that I am, knowing how to "access" information is not satisfying in the way that actually knowing something is.
It gives me great pride when I really know something through and through, down to the minutest detail, though it usually makes the eyes of those around me glaze over, including my closest friends. That's one of the lonelinesses of our time: that there is no longer a relatively doable "cannon" of knowledge that most college or high school graduates can be expected to know. There was a time when every well-educated person could talk with some sophistication about the Roman republican Marcus Tullius Cicero (107-44 BCE). Today nobody knows and nobody seems to care. One of the central figures of western civilization—sometimes called "the first modern man," or "the first man we know a very great deal about"—is now not much more than a tedious footnote. Hundreds of millions of people cheerfully pass their lives without understanding who he was, when he lived, what he stood for, and why he matters for a freedom-loving people. I have no particular angst over this, except that it seems appalling somehow that people of our time know infinitely more about the life of Kim Kardashian than they do about the poetry of Shakespeare, the philosophy of Aristotle, or the creative artistry of Michelangelo.
If Cicero doesn't matter any more—and I am perfectly willing to accept that he has dropped out of the world's consciousness and memory—then what, exactly, does matter? Does Mussolini matter? Does Gandhi matter? Should we know what Lincoln said about the future of the American experiment in his Second Inaugural Address (the best inaugural address ever delivered)? Should we know when the first atomic bomb was dropped? Or why? And with what consequence?
All the wild debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core standards for K-12 education makes me tired, particularly since so much of it is based on ignorance and misinformation. We are, I believe, missing the larger debate we should be having about two things. First, what exactly do we want young people to know in the age of instant and infinite information? In the thirteen years we have them in captivity, surely we ought to teach them something. Penmanship and cursive are gone. The debate about "calculators" in math and science courses has been over for decades. What good is it for a high school social studies teacher to lecture (from old notes) about the "Causes of World War I," when you can instantly find 50 excellent websites that do it better than all but the very finest teachers?
Second, how are we ever going to wean ourselves of television, pop culture, the demeaning cult of celebrity, video games, and pointless, violent, over-sexed, nihilistic movies? In my opinion, a little of each of these things goes a very long way, and I do honestly believe that we are teetering on the edge of a New Dark Ages, in which people will be clever but vapid and spiritually empty to the core. This may sound alarmist, and maybe I'm full of beans (I hope so), but I think our culture is moving in a catastrophic direction. About a quarter of the young people we send to college require remedial training to be ready for college. Say what? We had thirteen years to prepare them! And they aren't ready? What exactly have we been doing with them all these years?
We have dumbed ourselves down so profoundly that it's a very rare high school English course where you'd read Moby Dick these days or David Copperfield, much less Faulkner or Dostoevsky. When are we going to start lifting ourselves to higher standards, instead of lowering the bar every few years to accommodate the culture in its headlong decline?
There was a time when Milton's Paradise Lost, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's tragedies, the novels of Dickens, and the poetry of Alexander Pope were the common cultural inheritance of the English-speaking world. Today Paradise Lost (one of the world's supreme poems) is read by a few thousand people per year, down from many hundreds of thousands per year when I was growing up. Chaucer is now usually taught (if at all) in a modern English translation, because his Middle English is reckoned to be "too hard" for today's students. That's the equivalent of a showing a cartoon version of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz. What's the point exactly?
The Muses, by the way, are: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.
I looked that up just now on that Internet (which listed a rock band before the Greek Muses!)—as well as the dates of Cicero and the number of Minnesota counties. I don't know what I would do without Wikipedia. I do know that I don't want that to become my (or anyone else's) brain.
Public domain image from New York Public Library Digital Collections. "Apollo dancing with the Muses" 1800 - 1899.