Rebirth of Reason


Minimizing Knowledge
by Joseph Rowlands

A well-known question among children is when will they ever need to know algebra. Why study the subject unless they're going to do math for a living? One of the students in my school actually asked the teacher that question, and the teacher replied that you won't actually ever need algebra, but you have to learn it anyway.

As an adult, I know that I actually did need to learn algebra, and use it frequently. I don't use it as a student learns it. I'm not given a bunch of algebra problems and asked to solve it for a living. But solving for a variable happens all of the time. I have some information and I need to manipulate it correctly to find what I actually need. Without a solid awareness of algebra and the its methodology, I would be stuck.

This question that students ask is based on a strange assumption. It assumes that you should only learn what you absolutely will need to know. There's a value judgment that's being made or accepted. It says you should try to minimize how much you know. Any additional knowledge or understanding is considered wasteful.

Adults often act the same way. When exposed to new ideas, they'll shrug and say it isn't useful in their lives. To them, it is a waste of time to learn anything that isn't necessary for their job. Again, the goal is to minimize your knowledge.

It reminds me of some people's view of death. They think that if you die penniless, you've optimized your life perfectly. If you still had money when you died, it would have proven that you worked too hard or too long. Minimizing is the goal.

In contrast to that view is an equally strange position. This is the position of knowledge for knowledge sake. You should learn things, not because it will be useful, but because learning is some kind of higher value that makes your life more valuable.

I have a different view of it all. I see learning as valuable, but not for its own sake, and not with the intent to learn just enough and too much. In fact, I think that's the wasteful approach.

Knowledge and understanding provide a person with more options, and it happens in unpredictable ways. I had no ready answer for the algebra question, and clearly neither did my math teacher. But the usefulness goes far beyond simply solving algebra equations all day. The methods of algebra allow you to solve many different kinds of problems that you wouldn't otherwise be able to. Even outside of math problems the approach to taking what you know and what you don't know and manipulating them based on potential relationships is useful all of the time. It's hard to even point out where I end up using it because the approach is so well integrated into my understanding that I don't recognized it as algebra.

And that highlights one of the values of knowledge and understanding. You don't just learn the specifics. You enhance your ability to solve problems, see parallels, and quickly grasp new ideas and their implications. You can't possibly predict all of the times where it will be useful in your life. Even as an adult, it's hard to recognize how it has fully impacted your life. It's too well ingrained in your approach and understanding of the world to separate.

A person who minimizes knowledge gets none of these benefits. Since he can't foresee what he knows, he will always err on the side of too little understanding and too little knowledge. He'll make bad decisions, not understand what's happening around him, and be poorly equipped to deal with life.

The same kind of wastefulness occurs when someone tries to minimize how much they make so they can die penniless. They can't know what opportunities are lost along the way, or how a shortage of money will have a negative impact on their health or longevity. They inevitably have to minimize their livelihood to match their money, instead of the other way around.

And it is wasteful. By minimizing your knowledge, you make every other activity harder and more wasteful. Trying to never learn at work will guarantee that you are stuck in a job without the possibility of progressing, forcing you to spend far more time and effort for much lower returns.

The nature of knowledge makes minimization even more risky. You don't know what information or knowledge you'll need. You don't know what you don't know. That makes you a particularly poor judge of when you should stop learning. You can't tell if the next bit of knowledge or understanding will have a significant impact. This is why children aren't the best judge of what they should study in school. They don't know enough to know what knowledge is most beneficial.

Of course, this doesn't require you to study every topic with equal enthusiasm or time. There are many topics related to you and your life, your career, and your interests. You can learn about any of them, exploring them and moving on. You can explore a new topic to see if it interests you, or try to get a deeper understanding of topics you know.

It's also useful to try to integrate the knowledge as you learn it. Seeing connections between different fields can magnify their usefulness by drawing parallels and seeing different approaches to similar problems.

There are lots of ways of making learning more efficient, but the most important step is to recognize the value in it. That value cannot be restricted to knowledge you are certain you'll need. That approach leads to minimizing knowledge, and minimizing your life with it. You have to value new knowledge for the unexpected and important ways it can improve your life.

Once you move away from the minimal knowledge view and start to recognize the many ways knowledge can be useful, you open your eyes to new information and understanding. It allows you to be on the lookout for new opportunities, whereas the minimal knowledge view keeps you eyes close in case you accidently learn too much.

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