I wish I could ask him what he meant by this

May 20th, 2014, 4pm

It was 20°C with few clouds. The breeze was gentle.

On my lunchtime stroll yesterday I ended up exploring the Queen Square area again (and here). This time I noticed this low relief panel above one of the doors on the (hideous) 1930s extension building that forms part of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, on the south side of the original building.

The sculptor was the Londoner Arthur James John Ayres (1902-1985), and the quotation is apparently from Horace Mann (1796-1859), an American ‘education reformist’ (according to Wikipedia). Ayres has put the heading RESEARCH above the quotation:

Every addition to true knowledge is an addition to human power

In the first moment that I saw this, I thought ‘yes’. But then a fraction of a second later my feelings switched completely and I found myself very uncomfortable with that proposition.

From what I’ve read on Wikipedia, Mann was a passionate believer in the importance of education, and publicly-funded education in particular. From various quotations that I’ve now read of his, he strikes me as someone who had formed the idea that education was the path to ‘salvation’, to building a good life, a good society and a good world.

Now don’t get me wrong - I’m all for education! I work at a University, after all, so I would hardly say otherwise, would I?! But it seems to me that the flaw in his approach was to think that the imparting of knowledge through education is all that is needed to empower individuals to achieve great things.

Was it Francis Bacon who said

Knowledge is power?

Perhaps that’s what Mann had in mind when he made his statement. One danger, if they are correct, is highlighted in that well-known statement made by Lord Acton:

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

Perhaps Mann thought that publicly-funded education would ensure that knowledge was shared and made available to all, rather than being used as a tool to manipulate and control, to exalt the favoured while keeping the rest in subjugation? That sounds like a noble view but I would assert that it is naive at best, as it doesn’t allow for the fact that human nature has a tendency to act selfishly, so the possession (and distribution) of knowledge will always be used as a means of rule and control. The conspiracy theorists among us will tell us that our governments are doing this all the time! But we can see it perhaps more clearly in broadcast media, commercial companies and even in communities and families.

To my knowledge Mann never explicitly denied the need for spiritual education, but his proposals explicitly omitted religious instruction and in practice this just doesn’t seem to have entered the equation, and that is ultimately where I believe the greatest danger lies. It was the Apostle Paul who said (in 1 Corinthians 8:1):

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up

He understood that the natural human inclination is to pride not humility, and the gaining of knowledge often encourages that. Ironically, Mann once said

The most ignorant are the most conceited

But the Apostle sees it the other way round completely!

That doesn’t mean we should be anti-knowledge. Of course not! There is so much in our wonderful world to explore, to research, to learn, to investigate, to grapple with and understand and to share. But to be forewarned of the dangers of becoming proud - both as individuals and as societies - is to be forearmed. The ideal is of course to gain both knowledge and wisdom - not the same thing - and to ask God to keep us humble as we grow and develop. In the Bible we read that the fear of the Lord is both the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (see Psalm 111 and Proverbs 1:7), so that’s a good place to start. It was apparently Johannes Kepler who said:

I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.

That to me sounds like the best advice.

Chloe and David Wade said thanks.

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Adrian Tribe

A follower of Jesus Christ, a husband and father, a Kentish Man (not a Man of Kent), a commuter to London

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