Francis Bacon, when he wrote “A man is but what he knoweth,” was successfully advocating a whole new way of gaining knowledge (roughly speaking, scientific induction), so he may have been a little overenthusiastic about “knowing.” And admonitions in a library are likely to emphasize knowledge over other kinds of interactions between students in the room. But the issue is whether only knowledge makes a man, and whether the University is offering only knowledge to the minds of its students. We’ll ignore the fact that the use of the male noun seems to eliminate half the population. And let’s overlook the obvious fact that the body is needy, too. Instead, let’s talk about knowledge. It is certainly true that what we know defines a lot about us. And, not surprisingly, Columbia tries to pour knowledge into its students.
First of all there is the knowledge that makes you a professional in something. We are what we do in the world: People will keep asking, “What do you DO?” Majors, grad school, and interdepartmental programs all offer specialized training, and all of it is aimed at giving you the knowledge to be such a professional.
Who you are also depends on knowing how to use those skills. While you are at Columbia you do labs, work for professors, get summer jobs, and find internships that help you to know how to use your specialized knowledge. You have to think about what political aims and moral standards you should use in choosing and using technical and practical knowledge. You come with those from family, church, community, the media, and the Internet, but at Columbia you get a chance to work them out in courses and discussion with others. For example, the Core Curriculum gives you extended opportunities to discuss what you accept as a worthwhile goal for your work.
However, the quote reads, “A man is but what he knoweth.” The “but” is problematic.
Your identity also depends on your ability to work with others. You are who you know, and who you can count on. At Columbia you learn how to build those links in collaborative projects, student associations, performance groups, athletic teams, and protest movements.
Furthermore, you are what you feel. You get to know how nice it is to make a good contribution to a class discussion. You learn to rise above your mistakes. You learn how good it feels to get, and to yearn for, recognition for a job well done (including getting your degree). You get to know the pain of watching friends slide, or the joy of seeing them get through a rough spot. You learn how important it is, both for yourself and socially, to feel right.
You are, too, what others think of you. Although many of you come to Columbia very conscious of what others think about you, you learn to evaluate those judgments and balance them against what you really care about. You learn the strategy of getting the right people to think the best of you, including what you want to include in that category of “best.”
You are also a bundle of inborn and/or nurtured capacities and weaknesses. You are good at, feel comfortable with, are skillful about some things and not others. Picking majors and participating in group activities or art and music performances help you to discover who you are in a way that is different from what you know.
The statement over the Butler Reference Room is correct in that what you know is crucial to who you are. But it’s only a beginning of what’s important in making you a person—and what you get at Columbia.
The author is a professor emeritus of political science and director of the Society of Senior Scholars.