Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Real knowledge comes from successful attempts to satisfy curiosity. If there was a note of despair in my last post, it is because I am genuinely concerned that curiosity is being marginalized in the pursuit of knowledge. It is being replaced, I fear, with ambition, which is, properly speaking, to power what curiosity is supposed to be to knowledge.

The ambitious seek power, while the curious seek knowledge. Without making any moral judgements about these pursuits, I think the university ought to be a place where highly curious people can succeed even when they "compete" with very ambitious ones. My worry is that people who are truly curious about how the world works, but don't really care about where they end up within it, will eventually be as dysfunctional on university campuses as they already are in business and politics.

Like I say, we don't have to decide whether it is better to seek knowledge or to seek power. The point is simply that there are well-defined social spheres where power can be legitimately pursued and there should be other spheres where knowledge is sought just as legitimately. I've been getting the impression that the universities are no longer especially interested in knowledge—a variety of pressures are shifting us towards an interest in qualifications instead. So we teach students not what we know but what they want to know. And we write not what we think but what we think might get published. That leaves both researcher and student open to a great deal of manipulation.

I used to think that "intelligence work" (the CIA and such) would always be a last sanctuary for truly curious people. They would give up a good deal of freedom, and they would of course have to commit to a code of secrecy, but they would be allowed to try to really figure out "what's going on" in their area of expertise. The so-called Downing Street Memo, which revealed that in the lead-up to the Iraq War "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy", sort of killed the romance of the spy world for me. There may still be some elite squad of "analysts" whose task it is to really understand what's happening "on the ground" in one or another "theatre of conflict". But the people who are supposed to use their knowledge for some deed of great pitch and moment have already, all too probably, made up their minds about what needs to be done. They are not really interested in what the facts are.

This was the lesson of Ron Suskind's important little discovery of the Bush Administration's idea (Karl Rove's, I imagine) of a "reality-based community". Curiosity about "discernible reality" was thought of as a sort of quaint notion, noble in its way, but not really relevant to the needs of an empire. Indeed, I too often feel like our intelligence is quite generally being fixed around a policy. It does not really matter what the facts are, or what the likely consequences of particular courses of action will be. Some actions are valued for their own sake.

Ambition, after all, is satisfied by a course of action, just as curiosity is satisfied by a series of perceptions. My hope is that highly perceptive people will soon be valued again. After all, there are lots of things going on these days that seem in need of getting noticed.

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