You Need to Learn

Stephen Downes takes a half hour out to list ten things that he thinks you need to learn. I think he’s hit the mark on almost every point; at the same time, I’m beginning to think that I can summarize my own perspective on “what you need to learn” in the three-word phrase, “knowing the difference.”

Simplifying to the extreme, most of what I deplore in academic and ecclesiastical life involves collaboration with the forces that promote indifference, and if we would recuperate from pernicious indifference, we need to pay close attention to differences, and to weigh them with critical diligence.

So — for instance — Downes correctly inveighs against undervaluing ourselves (point 9), but I’d want to insist on the caveat that we aren’t all “valuable” in all ways. As an athlete, I’m just flat-out dispensible, and if I want to insist that I have something to offer as a theoretician, as a preacher, as an interpreter of Scripture, as a Dad, and so on, I need to be willing to allow that as a point guard I mostly just occupy court space that others could put to more productive use. I may be intrinsically valuable as a human being (and even that claim deserves critical refinement), but that doesn’t make my judgments about twelve-tone music or my advice about political maneuvering “valuable.” We need to know the difference between self-respect that’s grounded in demonstrable qualities and self-esteem that’s inflated with delusion. Vilely destructive as is contemporary culture’s tendency to inflict insecurity wherever it can, we remedy that syndrome not by answering pejorative lies with affirmative lies — we remedy the culture of fearful self-doubt by observing actual strengths, acknowledging actual weaknesses, and operating in life on the basis of an honest (corrigible) version of our strengths and weaknesses.*

* I wouldn’t want to suggest that Downes argues in favor of vain self-aggrandizement. He regularly cites specific virtues and vices in the technologies, practices, and arguments that he describes; it would be out of character for him to stand up for groundless puffery. Here, I’m just arguing that generalized good feelings about oneself need a connection to people, capacities, characteristics, and so on. In the world into which Chris Locke gives us so frighteningly unsparing a view, “we are special, from head to toe.” Baloney. My toes are no big deal, and that’s maybe the least of my deficiencies.

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