How do we know?

Solomon, ...this devotee of wisdom who had silver in abundance, gold in excess, jewels beyond belief, and power whereby to indulge his every desire, affirmed that the sum total of these was not comparable to the worth of knowledge!

Associate Professor of Education, Potomac University, Michigan Campus

Take my instruction instead of silver,

And knowledge rather than choice gold;

For wisdom is better than jewels,

And all you may desire cannot compare with her

(Prov. 8:10, 11, R.S.V.).

THUS did the sage Solomon declare the passion of which the pursuit of knowledge is worthy. No Mountain has been too rugged to mine for silver. No privation has been too severe to endure for gold. No risk has been too great to take for jewels. No sacrifice has been too dear to make for the satis­faction of human desires. Yet this devotee of wisdom who had silver in abundance, gold in excess, jewels beyond belief, and power whereby to indulge his every desire, affirmed that the sum total of these was not comparable to the worth of knowledge!

We know now that the knowledge of Solo­mon's day was very limited. There may have been "no new thing under the sun" then, but there has been abundance of them since! Writ­ing was so cumbersome back there that re­corded history was very meager. Students today must study an additional three thousand years of history, much of which is very fully recorded. Scientific knowledge then consisted of simple observations of natural occurrences, such as movements of the stars, growth of plants, the activities of animals useful to man. Scientific theory was nothing more than a mythology, which might explain the daily course of the sun as being the drive of the solar deity across the heavens in his flaming- chariot, or define clouds as celestial cows from which milk descends as nourishing rain.

The days of Solomon were four centuries before Thales of Miletus made the first systematic advance beyond the mythological view of na­ture; six centuries before Aristotle compiled his account of animal structures; seven centuries before Archimedes took the first step in an exact science of mechanics by his discovery of the law of levers; and more than twenty-three centuries before Galileo began to develop a truly scientific method of controlled experi­ment. In the field of mathematics, the Chalde­ans and the Egyptians had developed a geom­etry of areas and volumes, but the world was to wait another six hundred years for the demon­strative geometry of Euclid, and about two thousand years for the first approach to a scien­tific treatment of equations by the Arabs, who laid the foundations for algebra. Even Bible knowledge was yet in its infancy, with only a little more than half a dozen of our Old Testa­ment books partially written.

Power Increases With Knowledge

As man's knowlege increased, so did his power. Horace Mann observed that "every ad­dition to true knowledge is an addition to hu­man power" (Lectures and Reports on Educa­tion, No. 1). Sir Francis Bacon declared, "Knowledge is power" (Meditations Sacrae, 1597). Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed, saying, "There is no knowledge that is not power" (Society and Solitude: Old Age). Joseph Addi­son concurred with Solomon in stating, "I would rather excel others in knowledge than in power" (The Guardian, No. 3). And John Langford added, "The only jewel which will not decay is knowledge" (The Praise of Books, Preliminary Essay). Surely, if Solomon were living in our time, when knowledge has been so vastly increased, he would avow with even greater certitude: "Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her."

In our day the quest for knowledge has be­come a highly institutionalized activity. Large organizations are set up to solicit funds for the financing of research in the fight against disease. Huge fortunes are placed into irrevocable trusts to further man's search for knowledge in specific fields. Great libraries and museums are maintained for the convenience of those who wish to learn. Big conventions of scholars are frequently called for the purpose of sharing re­sults, techniques, and progress in the highly or­ganized campaign to wrest knowledge from the unknown. The U.S. Government—along with many other governments—spends fantastic sums of money and devotes unnumbered man-hours in the never-ending and ever-increasing race for more knowledge as the means to more power.

Yet, greater than any of these agencies—and basic to all of them in mankind's endeavor to roll back the curtains of ignorance that darken the light of truth—is one of the oldest institu­tions of civilization, namely, the school. It is the repository for the knowledge man has ac­cumulated and preserved. It is a medium by which this knowledge is communicated to suc­ceeding generations. It is an instrument for the discovery of new knowledge.

We are concerned, not only with schools in general, but also with a system of schools unique in origin and philosophy. Upon us and upon our present and future colleagues rests the responsibility of making this system equally as unique in operation. Let us then examine briefly the foundations of the knowledge with which schools are so basically concerned.

Three Methods of Acquiring Knowledge

The sources from which man has gained knowledge are three: (1) by personal experi­ence, (2) by the testimony of others, (3) by reason based on the principle of uniformity.

First, knowledge is gained by personal ex­perience. Every new experience we encounter is a learning situation. During infancy and early childhood, when a large share of all experi­ences axe new ones, this is the most important of the three sources. It is also the most im­pressive.

I recall very distinctly a scientific discovery I made at the age of six. It was one of the fre­quent below-zero days of a North Dakota win­ter. Since it was too cold to play outside, mother had to put up with me in the house.

Among other things that she found to keep me occupied was the task of hanging a picture on the living-room wall. For this a trip to the tool shed was necessary in order to get the hammer. As I brought it in past the kitchen stove, where mother was preparing dinner, some of the mois­ture arising from the steaming kettles quickly condensed on the very cold hammer, covering it with a glistening layer of frost. This develop­ment so fascinated me that it held my atten­tion for some moments before I put the hammer to its intended use. What intrigued me most was neither the principle of relative hu­midity nor the aesthetic quality of the frost-cov­ered steel, but rather the profound question, "I wonder what it would taste like if I licked it!" Obviously, the way to find out was to lick it.

Now, if any of you have ever licked a very cold hammer you can sympathize with the shock and pain that was mine the instant con­tact was made. My tongue froze firmly to the steel, and I was unable to get it loose! In an­swer to my screams, mother came to my rescue. After a few moments over a hot radiator my tongue was again free. Of course, eating and speaking were rather painful activities for sev­eral days, but perhaps this was not too high a price to pay for a bit of knowledge that has stayed with me all these years.

Another source of knowledge is the testimony of others concerning their experience. This is a much more economical source than that of ex­perience. It is also the source from which most of our knowledge is obtained. This source was available to me in the episode of the frosty hammer. While passing through the kitchen I had remarked to mother that it would be fun to lick the frost off. She told me that as a girl she had tried licking the frost off a farm cultivator, and that in pulling herself free she had left part of her tongue tissues frozen to the metal. The same knowledge that I learned by painful experience a few moments later had been of­fered me gratis by testimony, but I had re­jected it. Information does not become knowl­edge until it is believed.

The third source of knowledge is human rea­son based on the assumption that a certain uni­formity pervades the natural processes. Al­though we use this method more than we may realize, we use it far less than we ought. Ad­monitions to "think things through," "think be­fore you act," "think about what you are read­ing," are simply invitations to make use of this third means to knowledge.my mother told her the whole story, emphasiz­ing the fact that she had warned me beforehand not to do it. Little Bessie retorted in her catty manner, "Ha, ha! That's what you get for not minding your mother."

A day or two later I went to her house to play, and found that she had a sore tongue! She had licked a frosty doorknob! I said, "Ha, ha, yourself! You laughed at me for licking a ham­mer." Almost in tears Bessie wailed, "But my mother didn't tell me not to lick the doorknob!" Still determined to show her up as being more stupid than I, I continued my reproach: "But you saw what happened to my tongue, and you heard mother tell what had happened to hers." Do you suppose that silenced Bessie? It did not! With her most sarcastic {eline tone, she coun­tered, "Well, silly, of course I wouldn't have licked a cultivator, and I wouldn't have licked a hammer, but how was I to know that a door­knob would do the same?"

Unlike myself, Bessie had accepted the testi­mony of others. However, she had failed to reckon with the principle of uniformity. When tempted by the frosty doorknob, she could have reasoned like this: "When people lick cold metal their tongues stick to it and they get hurt. This doorknob is cold metal. Therefore, if I lick it, my tongue will stick to it, and it will hurt." Thus, through a syllogism based on the uniform action of cold metal on a wet tongue, she could have arrived intelligently at the same knowledge that she learned through a humiliat­ing experience.

Schools are designed and operated for the purpose of speeding up the process of acquiring knowledge by all three methods. In the labora­tory and gymnasium, through assigned projects and social contacts, learning by experience is supervised and the techniques of controlled ex­periment are taught. In textbooks and in the reference library the accumulated testimony of human experience is organized. The student is guided into a systematic use of these works in his quest for knowledge. In the study of mathematics, science, philosophy, and other dis­ciplines, and by the exercise of thinking things through under mature guidance, the processes of logical reasoning from uniformity are learned. (To be continued)


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Associate Professor of Education, Potomac University, Michigan Campus

May 1960

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