Knowledge for its own sake

by Dr Luis Murillo

ImageINTERNAL motivation is a drive that comes from within you. Just as athletes experience pleasure as they develop competency and strength, students may sense meaning and pleasure as they get a better grasp of the world around them and feel the enhancement of their faculties. Teachers and parents should encourage that experience. In the absence of internal motivation, parents may dangle incentives of some type or another to achieve the desired outcome of high grades from a student, but there are reasons to be cautious with that.

There are students who are focused on answering questions. Then, there are students who are focused on questioning answers. While the former may manage to get high grades, it is the latter, who soar beyond grades to attain conceptual expertise and skill. A student who has been conditioned to produce the ‘right’ answers to specific stimuli is operating on a purely behaviorist model which leaves out wonder, fascination and relevance. Too keen a focus on the number written on the report card can distract from the pleasure of learning as an internal motivator. What does success mean for a student like that? Just a number?

If you are keen to excel at conformity you are less likely to generate groundbreaking contributions. So what needs to be emphasized? Understanding, inquiry, imagination, resourcefulness and a healthy questioning of authority.

In the Renaissance, scholars saw knowledge as something of intrinsic value. Leonardo was seeking meaning and beauty, not financial success or social advancement. I doubt it was Shakespeare’s mother’s tantrum over his low grades that made him a master of the English language; nor did Dante’s straight As contribute to his writing the “Divina Comedia.” Education, discovery, inquiry, inspiration: these are big words. We should ask ourselves whether grades are more than an occasionally helpful footnote.

The French sociologist, Jean-Francois Lyotard, writes in The Post-Modern Condition that our present condition in contemporary society is characterized by an obsession with high performance. Paradoxically, the cult of performance coincides with a collapse of meta-narratives, the large-scale, sweeping philosophies of the world that somehow inspired, justified and encouraged collective action.

Today, we are more than ever aware of the diversity and at times incompatibility of our aspirations. Sadly, economic competitiveness seems to be the sole common thread providing the meager but unavoidable motivation for individual performance. However pervasive this “micro-narrative” is, it seems insufficient to inspire greatness. Can you really motivate your children to achieve scholastically by brandishing the carrot of future prosperity?

I am skeptical that you can encourage love of learning just by proposing a high salary or material success, but if you can, I am not sure I would congratulate you for it. Isn’t education and the transmission of knowledge a much loftier goal than can be exhausted by the search for pragmatic solutions?

Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents describes society as a tool we have created to protect ourselves from unhappiness, and yet it is also one of the greatest sources of unhappiness. The constant need to repress instinctive drives in order to achieve the social project leaves the individual (e.g. the child who attends school) feeling a slave to the constraints of a society that relentlessly favors anhedonia. School, as a tool of socialization, then becomes one more element of repression and self-denial. There is an important drive, however, that needn’t be repressed in school and socialization, it is the search for meaning.

In the classical view of education, knowledge and particularly the contemplative reflection of knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) is described as one of the greatest sources of emancipation (this is more than better financial independence). Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics and Plato in the Symposium describes the search for knowledge as an intrinsic drive present in every human. Acquiring and savoring knowledge, they say, is the source of one of the most intense and lasting pleasures. This ideal should be passed on to our students.


ImageLuis Murillo currently teaches at the New International School of Thailand, presents internationally on Theory of Knowledge, and examines for the IBO. This piece was originally published in the Shanghai Daily.

One comment

  1. Naini singh

    Dr murillo, you brilliantly sum up the malaise that cripples our society and how schools add to this cancerous debilitation of the human spirit! It is one reason I stop short of scolding my son when he, in not so many words, expresses discontent towards his school.

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