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Ernst Gombrich – the fading of the tradition of general knowledge

November 21, 2014

“Granted that it was no more than a cloud of rumours, often false or misleading; even hearsay has its value if it gives you news of something you might enjoy. Life is short and no one could ever follow up a fraction of those cues which the language of our tribe threw in our path. …

With all its imperfections, its social dangers and its temptations, the tradition of general knowledge at least kept alive the feeling that there was so much you did not know and ought to learn about; it constantly bombarded you with reminders that there were more classics to be read, more countries to be visited, more scientific theories to be grasped, more languages to be learned than you could hope to assimilate in a lifetime.

We must not snobbishly ignore the fact that increasing numbers of eager and impressionable young people now arrive at the universities who have had no opportunities of hearing these rumours and of forming ideas of these distant landmarks. …

I am afraid that, as long as the universities are identified in the public mind not with the passing on of traditions, but with the passing of examinations, those who have these traditions at heart must defend them against bureaucratization. …

What can be saved of this old tradition can only be saved by leaving the student more time to educate himself, more time to read rather than skim and skip, time to assimilate rather than acquire knowledge, to roam the country round his allotted field, to make his own discoveries and to enjoy looking down on it from a neighbouring peak without expecting a diploma in mountaineering to satisfy the bureaucrats that their grant has been well spent.

But though I am sure that we must always try to teach less rather than more, this does not absolve us from our responsibility to help the student to make good use of the time thus gained. On the contrary, we must try very hard to find worthwhile alternatives to yet more courses and examinations, so as to provide the student with the same kind of orientation, at least, which the tradition of general knowledge provided for earlier generations. We need not idealize this tradition, as we have seen. It was neither very coherent nor very accurate. But it cohered at least as much as our language and our culture cohered and it thus counteracted the fragmentation of knowledge into unrelated specialisms. The fact that this unity was subjective speaks in its favour, for what else could it be? Most systems of order are subjective, but that is just why they may help the growing mind to feel at home on the map of culture.”

(from Ideals and Idols [1979])


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