In Praise of Accidental Knowledge

One of the few books we had in our house when I was young was a set of World Book Encyclopedias. When you looked up something in the encyclopedia you first had to find the volume which housed all the words beginning with the first letter of the word you were searching for. If you wanted to find out about aardvarks, you looked in the “A” volume. If you wanted to investigate llamas, you would go to the “L” volume. And if it was the attributes of zebras you were interested in, you could go to the “W, X, Y, Z” volume.

This sounds like a cumbersome process in a world in which most people resort to Google several times a day.

We assume Google is better because it is easier. You just type the word in and push the “Enter” button, and it takes you exactly where you want to go. But the old, cumbersome process had an advantage over Google: Although a Google search is quicker and more accurate, you learn less from it. The very inefficiency of the encyclopedia was its greatest benefit.

If I went hunting for “aardvark,” I was likely to have to pass by words such as “Australia,” “asteroid,” “artillery,” “Archimedes,” “anthropology,” and “Agave.” These new things paraded before my eyes—how could I simply pass them by?

In trying to find out about a mere animal, I learned about a country in the southern hemisphere, a heavenly body, weapons, a classical scientist, the academic discipline of the study of human cultures, and a kind of cactus plant. I would get lost for hours.

I knew about the “lemur” because I had looked for “Robert E. Lee.” I knew about “Tertullian” because I had tried to find “turtle.” I knew about “neurosis” because I had hunted for the “Netherlands.”

To this day I think that most of what I know I learned by attempting to learn something else.

This is true of learning in general, and it is particularly true when it comes to reading good literature. I read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, but I also learned about the history of Texas and the development of politics in the twentieth century. I read Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche hoping for a good adventure story, but I also got a lesson on the French Revolution.

Could I have found out about these things by doing an internet search? Sure I could. But I probably would never have gone to the trouble, and even if I had I would not have remembered them as well.

Google takes us where we want to go. And that is its disadvantage. Too much reliance on technology makes us narrow.

A Google search is like taking a plane to get somewhere: It gets you there faster, but you miss everything in between. We would be better off taking a train.

To this day, I try to make sure I read a few things that, on their surface, do not interest me—because if I only read the things that interest me, I am likely to miss certain kinds of things that I would never otherwise encounter.

We need to guard ourselves—in our schools and in our lives—against the narrowness that modern technology can produce in us, and we do this best by staying low-tech. Real books may not be the most efficient way to learn a particular thing, but they are the best way to learn everything.

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