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A little bit of knowledge

Reflect, Gentlemen, how many disputes you must have listened to, which were interminable, because neither party understood either his opponent or himself. Consider the fortunes of an argument in a debating society, and the need there so frequently is, not simply of some clear thinker to disentangle the perplexities of thought, but of capacity in the combatants to do justice to the clearest explanations which are set before them,—so much so, that the luminous arbitration only gives rise, perhaps, to more hopeless altercation. “Is a constitutional government better for a population than an absolute rule?” What a number of points have to be clearly apprehended before we are in a position to say one word on such a question! What is meant by “constitution”? by “constitutional government”? by “better”? by “a population”? {499} and by “absolutism”? The ideas represented by these various words ought, I do not say, to be as perfectly defined and located in the minds of the speakers as objects of sight in a landscape, but to be sufficiently, even though incompletely, apprehended, before they have a right to speak. “How is it that democracy can admit of slavery, as in ancient Greece?” “How can Catholicism flourish in a republic?” Now, a person who knows his ignorance will say, “These questions are beyond me;” and he tries to gain a clear notion and a firm hold of them; and, if he speaks, it is as investigating, not as deciding. On the other hand, let him never have tried to throw things together, or to discriminate between them, or to denote their peculiarities, in that case he has no hesitation in undertaking any subject, and perhaps has most to say upon those questions which are most new to him. This is why so many men are one-sided, narrow-minded, prejudiced, crotchety. This is why able men have to change their minds and their line of action in middle age, and to begin life again, because they have followed their party, instead of having secured that faculty of true perception as regards intellectual objects which has accrued to them, without their knowing how, as regards the objects of sight.

But this defect will never be corrected,—on the contrary, it will be aggravated,—by those popular institutions to which I referred just now. The displays of eloquence, or the interesting matter contained in their lectures, the variety of useful or entertaining knowledge contained in their libraries, though admirable in themselves, and advantageous to the student at a later stage of his course, never can serve as a substitute for methodical and laborious teaching. A young man of sharp and active intellect, who has had no other training, has little to show for it besides {500} a litter of ideas heaped up into his mind anyhow. He can utter a number of truths or sophisms, as the case may be, and one is as good to him as another. He is up with a number of doctrines and a number of facts, but they are all loose, and straggling, for he has no principles set up in his mind round which to aggregate and locate them. He can say a word or two on half a dozen sciences, but not a dozen words on any one. He says one thing now, and another thing presently; and when he attempts to write down distinctly what he holds upon a point in dispute, or what he understands by its terms, he breaks down, and is surprised at his failure. He sees objections more clearly than truths, and can ask a thousand questions which the wisest of men cannot answer; and withal, he has a very good opinion of himself, and is well satisfied with his attainments, and he declares against others, as opposed to the spread of knowledge altogether, who do not happen to adopt his ways of furthering it, or the opinions in which he considers it to result.

This is that barren mockery of knowledge which comes of attending on great Lecturers, or of mere acquaintance with reviews, magazines, newspapers, and other literature of the day, which, however able and valuable in itself, is not the instrument of intellectual education. If this is all the training a man has, the chance is that, when a few years have passed over his head, and he has talked to the full, he wearies of talking, and of the subjects on which he talked. He gives up the pursuit of knowledge, and forgets what he knew, whatever it was; and, taking things at their best, his mind is in no very different condition from what it was when he first began to improve it, as he hoped, though perhaps he never thought of more than of amusing himself. I say, “at the best,” for perhaps he will suffer from exhaustion and a distaste of the {501} subjects which once pleased him; or perhaps he has suffered some real intellectual mischief; perhaps he has contracted some serious disorder, he has admitted some taint of scepticism, which he will never get rid of.

And here we see what is meant by the poet’s maxim, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Not that knowledge, little or much, if it be real knowledge, is dangerous; but that many a man considers a mere hazy view of many things to be real knowledge, whereas it does but mislead, just as a short-sighted man sees only so far as to be led by his uncertain sight over the precipice. — from The Idea of a University (“Discipline of Mind”)