Are You a Caroline Fisher?

by Krishna on February 8, 2009

I was re-reading Harper Lee’sTo Kill a Mockingbird” when I came across this passage (abridged by me):

Then she went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet […] and asked, “Does anyone know what these are?”

I suppose she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.

“Teach me?” I said in surprise. “He hasn’t taught me anything, Miss Caroline. […]”

“If he didn’t teach you, who did?” Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. “Somebody did. You weren’t born reading The Mobile Register.

“Jem says I was. He read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead of a Finch. […]” […]

“Let’s not let our imaginations run away with us, dear,” she said. “Now you tell your father not to teach you anymore. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage – ”

“Ma’am?”

“Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.”

Over the years, I have seen cases of engineers and managers, who start with knowing nothing, but once they learn something, they think that they know everything. Before, they were ignorant and probably knew it. Now, they are both ignorant and arrogant and don’t realize that they are either.knowledge

The defining (and ironic) aspect of knowledge is that the more you acquire it, the more you understand how much more there is to learn, and how little you know. But for some people, a little knowledge is dangerous. They think that the little they know is enough to cover everything they do, and stop learning, let alone understanding conflicting views and increasing their depth of the subject.

It is easy to see the difference between a person who wants to learn and a person who seeks knowledge only to assuage his inferiority complex. If you talk about a new subject with the first kind of person, their eyes light up, they ask questions, they are eager to understand more. With the second person, their eyes glaze over, they become restless and they quickly navigate the conversation back onto the terra firma of subjects that they are comfortable with. Knowledge for such people is not an enlightenment, but a weapon for wielding power. Something that can be negotiated for money or prestige. Something that is threatened by the unknown, the new or a change.

Real wisdom does not treat new knowledge as a menace or is horrified by the prospect of other knowledgeable people. It sees them as opportunities for improvement. It sees resources that can be used for the greater good. It sees unexplored territory and is excited by expectations of new discoveries and inventions.

So you have to ask yourself: Do you feel endangered by people having a better knowledge than you expected? Do you think that they are probably too smart for their shoes? And they should submit to your coaching, mentorship and way of thinking? Well, perhaps you are behaving a lot like Miss Caroline Fisher and should expect the same contempt.


[Photo licensed from carf]

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