Considering Sources of Knowledge as We Near the End of Another Semester

Before we began the current semester just a few months ago, we may have heard or felt a subtle voice that called us by name, saying,

Where are your books?–that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you! (William Wordsworth, “Expostulation and Reply”)

Had we not heard this voice, at least in some form and to some degree, we probably would not have began our studies this semester.

And yet, now that we’re nearing the end of it, some of us may hear yet another voice, one that is now telling us the exact opposite:

Up! up! my Friend and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

We hear this voice as finals week approaches and, especially when we look outside and see the beginnings of a warm and bright spring day, are almost compelled to agree: “An ‘endless strife’ indeed!”

But the purpose of the above poem, as I understand it at least, is not to denounce books or to say that there is no value in learning. It is, on the other hand, to say that there are more and perhaps better sources of knowledge and learning than that which comes out of books alone. The poet continues:

And Hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

. . .

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives. (William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

Enough–that’s what’s on our minds as we contrast sitting in a room and taking a test or writing a paper with what happens on the other side of the window: white clouds, blue sky, and warm sun. When we consider this contrast, perhaps our thoughts flow to this question that was implicitly asked in the first poem: Why do I do the things I do? Why do we read and study so much?

Here’s another related poem by Walt Whitman on the same subject. He writes about charts and diagrams the same way Wordsworth discusses books in the above poem. Here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the stronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Knowledge can come from books and lectures and charts. But these are not the only sources of knowledge.

In the above poem, we don’t get to the stars until the very end–the last word, even. In other words, we don’t symbolically ascend until we’ve physically left the lecture hall and actually turned our gaze upward. A focus on one thing involves to some degree a neglect of something else (cf. Burke Permanence and Change 49), and if a gaze is looking at “charts and diagrams”–or words on a page or a computer screen–it is conversely not seeing stars in “perfect silence” and “mystical moist night-air.”

That isn’t to say that something might not be learned by seeing these “charts and diagrams” or words on a page or a screen. Quite the contrary. But when we sit in a lecture hall and look at charts and diagrams, we’re only seeing a symbolic representation of the stars. The stars are not actually seen with the eye. They are only “seen” symbolically with the mind (Cf. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By).

Charts and diagrams–books–should ultimately lead people to study things as they really are–dare I use the word truth here? Yes, I think so. I believe that truth is things as they really are. There may, of course be some value in studying books and charts for their own sake–it it is important to look at a lens from time to time in order to make sure that the lens is a pure instrument for letting us see through it.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way:

Men of the world who value the Way all turn to books. But books are nothing more than words. Words have value; what is of value in words is meaning. Meaning has something it is pursuing, but the thing that it is pursuing cannot be put into words and handed down. (Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Watson 1968, 152)

In more religious discourse, Joseph Smith expresses the same idea as Wordsworth, Whitman, and Zhuang:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relationship to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.

Yes, books are certainly valuable. But there’s more to learning than just seeing words on a page.