Is Knowing for the Sake of Knowing a Vanishing Ideal?

Sometimes insight into our inner selves comes from deeply reviewing our past; sometimes it comes from closely observing current events and socializing with other human beings in new and different ways; and more often such insights arrive from studying great writers, thinkers and researchers.

And a close examination of the inner self does not require a straight-on focus into finding more ways to achieve happiness, which sounds very strange. Many would say that the pursuit of happiness is what makes life worthwhile.

“The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself,” writes Susan David in Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  “Real happiness comes through activities you engage in for their own sake rather than for some extrinsic reason, even when the reason is something as seemingly benevolent as the desire to be happy.”

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (called epistemology in philosophical terms) is an intrinsic motivation because, simply, there is no extrinsic motivation in such a pursuit. For its own sake means we want to know to only know. It is not  a means to gain something externally outside of ourselves.

In a world of mass consumerism and devotion to material wealth gone awry, knowing something for its own sake has no immediate nor direct financial/material gain and therefore is not worth the effort.

We are seeing this kind of thinking in the slow death of students pursuing degrees in the humanities (bachelor’s degrees dropped to under 12% in 2015) [1], [2] as well as within the growing trend of higher education disinvesting in the liberal arts in favor of STEM degrees. [3]

Does not the outcome of such trends point to us becoming less human?

On a political plane we are witnessing this play out in the current White House administration? The political-game-oriented treatment of immigrant families, tax cuts allotted to a much greater and unequal degree to the wealthy, the push to make health insurance for the poor less affordable and much more difficult to obtain, the impulse to reduce Medicare and Social Security, the extreme lapse in moral behavior and an over-abundance of untruths,  – all these strains of thinking aligned with the current White House reek of human mercilessness.

[1] July Berman, Liberal arts majors are a dying breed, Marketwatch, July 2017, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/liberal-arts-majors-are-a-dying-breed-2017-06-05

[2] Benjamin Winterhalter, The Morbid Fascination with the Death of Humanities, The Atlantic, June 2014,  https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/the-morbid-fascination-with-the-death-of-the-humanities/372216/

[3] Patricia Cohen, A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding, New York Times, February 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/business/a-rising-call-to-promote-stem-education-and-cut-liberal-arts-funding.html

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