On Friday of the week before Spring Break, Prof. Green was speaking with his classes about the importance of “human knowledge.” What brought that topic to mind? Well, on his way to work, walking down Beacon Street through Coolidge Corner, he’d seen the book pictured above propped up by some unknown person, against a lamp post outside a Russian bookstore.
Prof. Green writes:
I asked myself what a book on the curb might say about “human knowledge.” And what value the words on its pages might have as it stood there warped and stained with winter grime? I continued to think about this as I observed the people I passed. Someone was smoking a cigarette in a doorway. Someone tossed a plastic water bottle on the sidewalk. And someone in a black SUV accelerated through a red light. The smoker knew smoking is unhealthy. The slob knew that plastic doesn’t decay. And the driver knew that driving through a red light is dangerous. Yet each person was unaffected by that knowledge. Farther down Beacon Street, I passed the office of the property manager of my building and recalled my experience on the board of my homeowners association when I was denounced for pointing out the need to follow the requirements of our insurance company. My knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Goethe, meant nothing in the face of self-interest and raw emotion. Then I saw a mother with a small child in a stroller. No doubt she imagines her child receiving an excellent education and acquiring as much knowledge as possible. And what will become of that knowledge? My thoughts turned to the search committee I’m on and the seventy-five job applications I had just spent fifteen hours reviewing. All together there were three hundred applications. For one position. People holding doctorates from some of the best universities in America, people with dozens of publications and presentations would not be hired. And they all have a great deal of human knowledge.
I soon reached Commonwealth Avenue and within minutes I was standing in front of my first class. The subject was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. “What is a right?” I asked my students. “Where does it come from?” “Do some people seem more concerned about their rights than others?” Once we established what a right is, I asked them what right in particular Wollstonecraft was arguing for. The most common answer was “education.” Some students saw education as a means to independence. So the goal, I asked, is knowledge through education? Yes. And with that knowledge you can be more independent and lead a better life. Yes. Wollstonecraft did not receive an education like yours, but she did manage to write several of the most important books in the field of British social philosophy. Do you think you could write a book like hers with the knowledge you’re acquiring through your education? Not so sure. Do you know anything about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft? No. It was tragic. She fell in love with a man named Gilbert Imlay and had his child. He abandoned her and she attempted to commit suicide not once but twice. She did find happiness in her relationship with William Godwin, but died of sepsis shortly after giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who at the age of seventeen ran off with a married man named Percy Shelley and ultimately became his wife–after his first wife committed suicide.
I thought back to the copy of Human Knowledge propped up on the curb amid the litter on the street. Today women not only have a right to an education, they are required by law to attend school. If they work hard and learn a lot, they will proceed to a university where they may gain more knowledge by reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s valuable and influential book. They may also gain knowledge by studying engineering, economics, and medicine. But is there any assurance that the knowledge they gain will lead to independence or happiness? On the Fifth Terrace of Purgatorio, Virgil asked Statius, a poet who possessed great knowledge and exercised good sense, how he could be guilty of the sin of avarice. Statius didn’t answer the question directly, but we know the point Dante was making: knowledge doesn’t necessarily make us better people. It’s what we do with our education, with our knowledge, that counts.