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Silver Surfer Articles
42. What do we Need to Know?

If I had lived two hundred years ago and was in my ‘old age’, I would probably be at least twenty years younger than I am now – and I would know considerably less! My education, if I had any, would have left me with only a tiny amount of knowledge in comparison to today. As an average person I would have few if any books, no newspapers or magazines and, of course, no television or computer or iPad or iPhone!
I read a comment in a magazine the other day that set more off down this lane of wondering, a winding lane going I knew not where. One-time US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, seemed to make a meal of the subject when he said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”  Sounds clever, but it’s obvious really!

The figures vary according to quote and time but I saw somewhere, “It is said that 80% percent of the world's total knowledge has been brought forth in the last decade and that 90% percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today.”  Whatever the accuracy of the figures, the fact is that there is a lot of information or knowledge around today, staggeringly more than say two hundred years ago. If you have ever tried helping the grandchildren with their maths homework, you know they work with a different language and different concepts to that which we experienced however many years back it was.

But there is a potential problem about that, and it is that it may leave us feeling out of our depth and out of date and superfluous to requirement! Do we need to know everything? Do we need to try and keep up with the changing world? Do we need to know more?

Well let’s face some facts. Number one is that many students coming out of university find that even though they go into the area of their specialism, they never use any, or hardly ever use any of the things they learnt over those three years at Uni. Number two, which is obvious when you think about it, is that no one can know everything or for that matter, even a tiny fraction of all knowledge. No, although you will encounter the person at the party who would like to convince you how knowledgeable they are and how important knowledge is, the truth is that raw knowledge is not the all-important thing. For instance who do you think appreciates you more: the person who has to listen to you pouring out your incredible pearls of knowledge and wisdom, or the person who finds that you are someone who appears to care for them and is listening to them? Answers on a postcard to.... no, if you don’t know the answer to that one you do have a lot of learning to do.

Putting aside Donald Rumsfeld, I think you could categorise knowledge into interesting knowledge, boring knowledge, useful knowledge and vital knowledge (and of course also, ignorance). Interesting knowledge might be what causes frost (see our October Seasonal page). It may change and become useful knowledge if you are a gardener. Boring knowledge is any knowledge for which you can find no use or interest and I had better not suggest anything because someone else may find it interesting or even useful – but it is out there.   Useful knowledge, as our earlier example suggested, is any knowledge that can be applied for our benefit, for example how to boil and egg, how to cook a chicken and so on. Vital knowledge is that which is essential to make life work and not end up in trouble, for example, the need to pay taxes, what sort of stamp to put on your large and heavy envelope, whether you need a visa to get into a country you are proposing to visit. Knowledge will change according to situation, won’t it. Learning French may be boring for a young school child, but become interesting for an adult, and then useful if you go on holiday in France. If you or your partner get a job in France, it becomes essential.

Some knowledge, you just have to accept, is going to be beyond you.  Someone once said, “The truth is you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.” I have sometimes wondered if Socrates was going over the top when he said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”  Perhaps that ‘you know nothing’ is in the total scope of things, in comparison to all that there is to know. Today we know so much that we fall in to the trap of thinking that we are supermen and women; knowledge is the fuel of pride. I think I go more with Shakespeare who said, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

I confess these days when I write anything like this that goes public (I have other blogs) I press the keys with fear and trembling. I used to think I had opinions worth espousing but the more I wrote the more I realised what I don’t know and whenever you seek to formulate an argument, as regular newspaper columnists do, you realise that there are more than a few sides to any argument and very soon your words just become hot air, which seems to coincide with the sage who said, “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” This is a bit like the Bible where in the book of Proverbs it says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

Perhaps experience is a good ground for knowledge and a right to speak in a small measure at least. Perhaps our Queen is one of the few people who has the right  to speak knowledgeably, such has been the incredible experience of the years of her reign.  As for you and me, if we’re in the Silver Surfer age bracket, I suggest we have lots and lots of knowledge born out of experience. I have often wondered about creating pages of the testimonies of people’s lives, but I think the Rochford Archive already does that.

I think one of the dangers of modern day living is that we have so many experiences and pick up so much knowledge that we lose a lot of it in the torrent of life. I have wondered about forming a group that gets together from time to time, just to listen to one another’s lives – so much knowledge and so much experience going to waste or simply being lost because either people don’t care or there isn’t a forum to share the wisdom, knowledge and experience of the years.  One of the wonders of Rochford Life is that every now and then it enables us to meet people and listen to their lives, and that is wonderful.

Academic knowledge?  Useless unless we pass it on!  Interesting knowledge?  Fun to stimulate the little grey cells and keep us moving intellectually and fighting off such things as dementia. Incidentally, did you know that scientists are now saying that two cups of hot chocolate each day, boosts memory by improving blood flow to the brain.

The trouble with knowledge is that you have to be so selective with it. Some while back it was said cholesterol was bad for you; now it is that there is ‘bad’ cholesterol which is not good for you, so much so that apparently there are at least eight million people in this country taking Statins to counter high ‘bad cholesterol’. Then you need to be selective with your knowledge yet again, because some statins apparently cause memory loss, but I can’t remember which sort of statins do it!

The whole area of knowledge is a fascinating one. Watch “Who wants to be a millionaire” and you realise that it is really chance whether you get given questions about the knowledge you have. Sometimes when we’ve watched it, I’ve got every question right up to a quarter of a million pounds – no problem, give me the money!  Then another game comes along and I am stuck with the thousand pound question.  Questions come up which seem so obvious that you wonder why they are having to ask the audience for help – and then they stumble!   Then comes the simple question for which everyone else seems to have the answer straight away, and I look blank. It really is a matter of what knowledge you happen to stumble across in life. So often I really don’t know what I know or, rather, why I know it!   OK, I know there are factors such as intelligence and even tiredness or good or poor health that can affect our thinking capacity.  I don’t know about you, but the people who go on Mastermind scare the life out of me.

Do I care that Joe Blogs knows more than me?  No, life’s not a general knowledge quiz. I enjoy reading and finding out more but ask me what I know and I just imagine this muscular grey mass inside my scull and I haven’t a clue. Perhaps it comes down to this: knowledge is fun until it becomes a necessity. I have learnt over the years not to get stressed by not knowing all the answers. When I started teaching young adults, the best advice I was given by a teacher of many years was, “Remember they think you have all the answers, but don’t be afraid, if you get asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, of saying, “I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to that but I’ll find out by next lesson.” The odds are today that if they don’t know the answer to their own question they will be tapping on an iPad or iPhone to get it. Ah, there is the answer to my question, “Do we have to know everything?”  It is obvious, isn’t it! No of course not, I’ve got Google!