The world is overrun with fake news. We have partisan extremists on every side, from Antifa to the alt-right. We have cable news and endless op-eds telling us that every issue is black and white, and “those people over there” who don’t see things the way we do are responsible for all of the problems our country and our world face.
These are the turbulent currents of our time. Building a firm foundation of knowledge can help you be a rock for yourself and your family so you don’t get swept away. If you want to develop as a strong, integrous man, then scholarship is essential.
What do we mean by scholarship, or knowledge more broadly? Do we just mean more partisan facts (Obamacare increased the cost of insurance by XYZ%, the Trump tax cuts created $ABC in national debt)? No. True knowledge is deeper, and involves learning enough about the world to buffer you against extremism.
It doesn’t matter what your political ideology is. It doesn’t matter if you’re Woke or a Trump supporter, a Christian or an atheist. Acquiring an understanding of the world is ideology-independent; it’s not about helping you win battles for your side, it’s about helping you live your best life.
Two Essential Types of Knowledge
In his landmark book A Celebration of Discipline, pastor and scholar Richard Foster lays out two important types of knowledge:
– books (to which we can add, any long-form high-information media such as documentaries)
– The world itself (that which we observe by living)
Both types are important. Books and other long-form media can help you understand historical trends, which inform where we are today and where we as a country (and as a world) are going. Observing the world itself—everything from the ladybug on your windowsill to how your neighbor who’s a different race talks about his children—can help you develop empathy and humility and a bone-deep understanding that, one way or another, we’re all in this together.
Benefit #1: With Knowledge, You Can Avoid Getting Caught Up In Extremism
There is no shortage of extremist causes looking for new recruits. Postmodernists insist that there are no objectively valid facts; everything is subjective. The alt-right insists that people who don’t look like them are somehow lesser. Anarchists insist that we should destroy the government by sometimes violent means, and Antifa shouts that words are violence and that ideas they dislike must be met with fists.
Each of these strains of extremism posits a narrow and selective view of the world. They look at a world that is dizzyingly complex and full of shades of gray, and they tell us that it’s all black or all white.
A firm foundation of knowledge is important because it can help buttress you against the siren song of these groups. An understanding of history shows us that there are, in fact, objectively valid facts. In the 1940s, 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz. That is both objectively true and objectively evil.
An understanding of how human societies have historically behaved in the absence of government (Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature provides a solid overview) shows us that, while governments can grow too big and too powerful, their total absence is generally a bad thing.
And history is replete with the dangers of curtailing free speech as Antifa desires.
The scholastically well-rounded man sees the world in shades of gray, and understands the danger of black and white thinking. That buffers you against the demands of extremists. This is essential for your own life. Extremists tend to be deeply unhappy, and to inflict their misery on others. Both social justice warrior extremists and alt-righters live in levels of mental Hell that most of us find difficult to imagine.
For the same reason, not giving into extremism is good for your family. When you pursue your best life instead of living in service to a partisan agenda, your woman and children benefit.
It is also essential if you want to improve the world, because there are many paths to being a better citizen but none of them go through extremist causes.
Benefit #2: Applying Knowledge to Integrous Action
Action without understanding is like a ruined car: it’s unlikely to get you where you want to go.
If you understand history and human nature, then you can better understand where we are as a country and see the directions (both good and bad) in which we are heading. This can help you to take integrous action as a citizen to set the nation on a better trajectory.
Imagine that you’re a US citizen in 1942, and there are rumblings about locking up Japanese-Americans to prevent them from aiding the enemy. A thorough grounding of history would show you examples of other civilizations who have let war inflame their passions against the out-crowd. You would understand why civilizations in war are prone to this, why it’s happening now, and what might be the consequences if the nation followed through on this urge.
From there, you could stand up against the prevailing tides and warn people. You would know where the road the US was considering walking would end, and could encourage the nation to walk a different path.
What applies to the nation applies to the state and the smaller community. If you see your community going down a path that history suggests will end poorly, then you can more effectively speak up.
Benefit #3: Knowledge Is an Antidote to Prejudice
There are any number of groups in the US and the world that encourage us to see one group of humans as better than another group. White supremacists cry that only white people are fully human. Social justice extremists believe that it is a sin to be white. Alt-righters despise women, and Sarah Jeong (former New York Times editorial board member) tweeted “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
Each of these beliefs relies on prejudice and an ignorance of the “other”. But when you deeply study the world—not just books, but your fellow man—you come to realize that there is no “other”. When you observe how your neighbor of a different race loves his children, you see that skin color is only skin-deep. When you have close relationships with both men and women, you understand that neither gender is superior to the other.
When you live deeply in the world, and observe the poor and the wealthy, the white and the black, the immigrant and the native, you come to realize how phenomenally similar we all are. Underneath our superficial differences, you see that we are all human.
Gaining knowledge is a powerful antidote to racism, sexism, and every other sort of prejudice.
The idea that understanding people different from us can counteract prejudice isn’t just nice-sounding theory—it actually works. Darryl Owens is a black man who has spent 30 years befriending members of the KKK in order to convince them to give up their robes. As NPR reports, “He (Davis) says once the friendship blossoms, the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.”
By observing other people, and developing a deep understanding of them, we can protect ourselves and our families from being swept away by the treacherous currents of fashionable prejudice.
Knowledge Is Important, But Not Sufficient
If you want to be a solid, integrous man, then knowledge matters. But it is not enough on its own. The world is full of highly-educated partisans who sell or buy into extremism to the detriment of themselves and their families.
What else is required? The integrous man needs wisdom and discernment. You don’t just need knowledge, you need to know how to use it.
You also need a solid sense of identity. In order to protect yourself and your family from getting caught up in fashionable extremism, you need to be fully grounded in yourself. Extremists prey on people who have a weak sense of identity. This has always been true; many of Mussolini’s Black Shirts were young men who felt dissociated from their culture and looked for a sense of belonging.
If you already have a sense of belonging in your own skin, and if you already feel complete in yourself, then extremism can’t get a handle in you. If your identity comes from who you are and not your political tribe or what you believe, then you’re less likely to throw your life away in service to an extremist cause.
That’s what separates the grounded, strong man from the partisan hack. Both have plenty of knowledge. But the former uses it in service of his own best life and the good of his family, community, and country. The latter just uses their knowledge to push an agenda.
If you would like to go deeper in cultivating strength and groundedness, The Evolving Man can help. We use men’s groups and 1-on-1 men’s coaching to build healthy, powerful men. If you’d like to take the next step on your path, reach out to us today.