Book trails can be interesting. Toward the end of the summer, I semi-innocently read the His Dark Materials series—to see what all the fuss had been about. Well, I found out what the fuss had been about. The series drove me nuts. But it also made me curious about Philip Pullman’s background. So I did a little research.
I had read some of Blake’s poetry before, mostly some of his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. His Marriage of Heaven and Hell was a pretty different experience. That is where Blake makes the claim that John Milton turned the Devil into the hero of Paradise Lost. I’m still not sure how seriously to take that claim, since Blake wrote his work as a satire of the Swedenborgians—one of those slightly odd nineteenth-century sects that have been mostly forgotten, and for good reason.
So, at a friend’s suggestion, I turned to Chesterton for enlightenment. Chesterton’s biography of Blake doesn’t put any intense focus on Blake’s literary works, but it does offer a critique of his personality and thought. As a poet himself, Chesterton greatly admired Blake while strongly opposing some of his beliefs.
Chesterton’s biographies are not biographies in the traditional sense. (Chesterton—traditionalist though he was—did very little in the “traditional sense.”) The biography is less about the events Blake’s life than it is about an effort to understand him. But understanding him was what I wanted to do anyway.
Chesterton left me with a lot of thoughts about William Blake. But—in typical Chestertonian fashion—he left me with more thoughts about life. About education, even.
“People say that specialists are inhuman,” wrote Chesterton, “but that is unjust…. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man.” Supporters of a liberal arts education, please stand up.
You know the stereotypes…the university professor who knows everything to know about his subject but doesn’t care two bits for his students. The medical student whose rudeness grows in proportion to his knowledge. The increasingly ruthless businessman. Chesterton says that the stereotypes are all bunk. The real problem isn’t intelligent people who turn into machines. The problem is intelligent people whose learning makes them so narrow that they can’t function outside of their specialty.
A professor of mine sometimes told a story about a stellar English student in Britain. She went to Oxford, if I recall correctly, and a group of visiting American students invited her to a meal because they had heard about her and thought she would be interesting to talk to.
She wasn’t. And not because she was rude or socially awkward. She simply didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. The Americans might not have her raw intelligence, but they had enough general knowledge to talk about a wide range of subjects. She could talk intelligently about English and very little else. So she sat through the evening in near-silence, the product of an overly specialized education.
“Wherever [the specialist] is not exceptionally learned,” Chesterton argues, “he is quite casually ignorant.” Chesterton mainly applied his contention to scientists, but, as my professor’s story shows, the problem is not confined to scientists. And I’m fairly sure it isn’t only confined to Europe. American support for the liberal arts is waning. We would do well to listen to Chesterton’s warnings:
In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the castle moat….People talk about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins mankind is the ignorance of the expert.