Category Archives: Intellectual curiosity

“Wakefulness of mind”

At the Convention on Modern Liberty, held yesterday in the UK, the keynote speech was given by Philip Pullman, author of the fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy. There is much to like in his speech, which ends: “We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.” But the part I liked best was about intellectual curiosity, or “wakefulness of mind”:

Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiousity. Wakefulness of mind, one might put it. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and its history, and every separate thread that makes up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to understand and love. We have to be taught how to love, how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and the memory of the nation.

A nation where this virtue was strong, would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That is the value of wakefulness.

My thanks to Cheryl Morgan and Cory Doctorow for their blog posts about the Convention, which led me to Pullman’s speech.

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Obama’s “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading…”

There’s a fascinating article about Barack Obama’s love of reading and the books that influenced him in today’s New York Times:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world….

Mr. Obama tends to take a magpie approach to reading — ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry….

What’s more, Mr. Obama’s love of fiction and poetry — Shakespeare’s plays, Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Marilynne Robinson‘s “Gilead” are mentioned on his Facebook page, along with the Bible, Lincoln’s collected writings and Emerson’s “Self Reliance” — has not only given him a heightened awareness of language. It has also imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition….

This makes me very happy.

Don’t believe everything you read

“The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” — Samuel Johnson

I thought this famous Samuel Johnson quote would be an appropriate way to begin my blog. The problem is that Johnson never actually said this, despite the fact that you’ll find this attributed to him on a number of different quotation websites. None of these websites identified the original source of the Johnson quote, so I decided to dig a little deeper. The Apocrypha section of Frank Lynch’s Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page identifies this quote as a corruption of something Johnson did say, which was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The actual Johnson quote is:  “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” I confirmed this by searching the text of Boswell’s Life of Johnson online.

This illustrates a few important lessons about evaluating sources of information:

  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Just because the same information appears on multiple websites doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Bad information spreads like a virus.
  • Not all sources of information are equal. Don’t rely on only one source for an important piece of information. You should always try to find multiple sources, as well as different kinds of sources.
  • Use reputable sources and find out where or who the information is coming from. Is the author or source identifiable, knowledgeable, and credible? What are their qualifications or credentials? Are they biased, do they have an ax to grind, or are they selling something? Are sources for the information cited, or does information appear in a vacuum without any way of knowing where it originally came from?

Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.