For years, I have often looked up from my feverish essay writing in the Reference Room, desperate for distraction or inspiration. What I have always seen is the disheartening claim that my worth is based on my knowledge. Sealed in stone and presiding over the hunched masses are Francis Bacon’s words: “A MAN IS BUT WHAT HE KNOWETH.” Keenly aware of just how much I do not know, I am dismayed by the words.
As I understand it, Bacon’s reference asserts the supremacy of knowledge as a means to personal worth. Thus, the more one knows the more value one has. Moreover, because values inform identity and character, Bacon’s claim is essentially that knowledge is most critical to identity. Thus, as one acquires education, knowledge, character and identity grow accordingly. With all due respect, I beg to differ with Sir Francis on this identity claim. Instead, I submit that a man is but who he knoweth.
It is my firm conviction that relationships and the interactions they facilitate have much more of an effect on our character than our accumulated knowledge do. It is not simply that our relationships teach us more—it’s that they directly impact our character.
Looking to my own life as an example, my knowledge has frequently had very little to do with who I am. For the past four years as an undergraduate at Columbia, I see no correlation between moments of great knowledge acquisition and episodes of significant personal growth. Take, for example, any given finals period. If Bacon is to be believed, I should see my identity being shaped at the ends of semesters, when I acquire great amounts of knowledge.
That is not what I experience. In fact, I think many of my peers would agree that finals and other periods of great academic performance are times when one puts personal development on hold simply to get work done. If anything, these periods inform our character and identity because surviving the challenges they present is so difficult that it builds up our personal endurance of hardship, not because we know more as a result of the experience.
Far from solely dictating the state of my knowledge , my Columbia experience has shaped me primarily because of the people in my life. My character has been influenced more by dinnertime conversations at Amir’s than by many of the courses I have taken. This is because no matter how fascinating the course material or compelling an article may be, our identities are impacted the most when other people inspire us with their actions, challenge us with their words, and then build on that process. In living life with someone it is impossible not to notice the many differences in character and identity, and consider if any of it is worth adopting. This comes from both direct intellectual debate and mutual life experiences.
Because of this conviction that our relationships and not knowledge define us, when I look up from my work in the Reference Room, Bacon’s boldly emblazoned wall claim does not discourage me. In fact, I am encouraged. To me, those gold letters stand not for what should drive our lives and identities, but rather serve as a warning to all who, like me, often find themselves toiling away in Butler in the dead of night. They assure me that an obsession with knowledge or the GPA on my résumé can become a destructive modus vivendi. They afford me the golden opportunity to remember that I am not the paper in front of me.
Derek Turner is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology and political science. He contributes regularly to The Canon.