To Accumulate Knowledge

January 6, 2008

“To accumulate knowledge was good and beautiful, but the reason for men to acquire it would have been more meaningful, and no one spoke of that.” – Jacques Lusseyran

In considering the meaning of education, it’s good to listen to the reflections of thoughtful people on their own schooling.

Jacques Lusseyran grew up in France during the German occupation of WWII. He was blinded at the age of eight and went on to run a resistance group of 600 members beginning at the age of sixteen. He attended regular schools and became a top scholar in his country (his academic goals were thwarted by the war), though a significant amount of his learning was independent.

Here are some of his thoughts on his grade school experience:

I have already said that for blind people there is such a thing as moral odor, and I think that was the case at school. A group of human beings that stay in one room by compulsion – or because of social obligation which comes to the same thing – begins to smell. That is literally the case, and with children it happens even faster. Just think how much suppressed anger, humiliated independence, frustrated vagrancy and impotent curiosity can be accumulated by forty boys between the ages of ten and fourteen!….

Boredom bound and gagged all my senses. Even sounds in class lost their volume and their depth and went lifeless. Every bit of my passion for living was needed to stand the test. At bottom I must have lacked discipline, not making up my mind to rebel, but still an incorrigible individualist. That was certainly part of my make-up, but then too there was blindness and its special world, to which school was doing violence. I had to wait years, at least until adolescence, to quiet the scandal which started inside my head at school. I doubt whether I have made peace with it even now.

I couldn’t understand why the teachers never talked about the life going on inside them or inside us. They talked in great detail about the origin of mountains, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the properties of triangles, the way beetles reproduce and how often, and the combustion of carbon dioxide. Sometimes they even talked about men, but only as personages of ancient history, those of the Renaissance and of Moliere’s comedies, or a personage stranger than all others, the one they called “individual” or “citizen,” of whom I never had the slightest conception. There was never any talk of real people like the teacher or ourselves.

As for the subject of all subjects, the fact that the world is not just outside us but also within, this was entirely lacking. I understood that the teacher could not or did not wish to talk about what was going on inside him. That was his affair, and after all I was not anxious myself to talk about what went on inside me. But the inner life was so much more than a personal thing. There were a thousand desires and goals my companions shared with me, and I knew it. To accumulate knowledge was good and beautiful, but the reason for men to acquire it would have been more meaningful, and no one spoke of that.

– Excerpt from Chapter Four of And Then There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran