Reflecting on “A Little Learning”

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” I find myself quoting this Alexander Pope line regularly as I see half-baked ideas guiding public policy.

People often operate with only a little understanding of biology when they protest vaccinations, with only a little understanding of economics when they think that budget cuts+tax cuts will reinvigorate the economy, with only a little understanding of history when they downplay the significance of slavery, with only a little understanding of sociology when they characterize urban youth, with only a little understanding of science generally when they advocate the teaching of “intelligent design.” I therefore thought it would be worthwhile to see what Pope had in mind when he penned the line.

It appears in Essay on Criticism (1711), the virtuoso poem that made the 23-year-old Pope instantly famous. Pope actually is criticizing ambitious young writers who are puffed up with pride as they think they know more than they do. Pope’s analogy involves a mountain climber who thinks he has conquered the mountain range because he has climbed the first mountain. He does not yet see that, in the distance, “Alps on Alps arise”:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts, [220]
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way, [230]
Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Sadly enough, Pope’s warning would probably have little effect on current day policy makers. Pope assumes that we want to know at least a little. He doesn’t anticipate that policy makers want only the veneer of academic respectability to give their ideas credibility and nothing more.

Take Paul Ryan, for instance, who wants to be regarded as a policy wonk, even if his numbers don’t add up and the people he quotes complain that he is misusing their statistical studies.  He’s not interested in drinking deeply or even, for that matter, shallowly. He knows ahead of time what policy he wants and his seeming wonkery is merely striving for what Stephen Colbert has immortally described as “truthiness.”

In other words, I have been misapplying Pope’s line It’s not that today’s policy makers  are only partially informed and would be much better public servants if only they drank deeply of the Pierian spring. Rather, they’re not interested in knowledge at all. Knowledge is a brand name that they use to sell their product.

And if it doesn’t help them—if, say, a knowledge of climate change will get them in trouble with their political base—then they pull a Marco Rubio and pretend to know nothing. Or as Rubio put it, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Actually, I take that back. Rubio took so much flack for such blatant no-nothingness that he has since backtracked. The GOP needs at least some academic veneer for their ideas. Therefore, they are learning to use John Boehner’s escape hatch: “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change. But …” That at least acknowledges that there is science out there, even if one then ignores it.

Which I guess counts as some kind of progress.

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