Essay About General Knowledge

We come now to the broader condition of General Knowledge. This, in the minds of many, sums up in itself all the conditions of good conversation, and yet it is so partial a truth as to be practically misleading. A great mistake lies at the root of such an opinion, which assumes that the first object of conversation is not to please but to instruct. I could produce one hundred Irish peasants more agreeable than many a highly-informed 27Englishman, and yet these peasants might in many cases be unable to read or write. Of course to instruct or to be instructed is often very pleasant, and so far knowledge, general or special, is a very useful help to conversation, but it is as talk, not as a lesson, that we must here regard it.

The advantage of general above special knowledge for our purpose is that it can be applied in a greater number of cases, and used to interest a greater number of people. The man of general knowledge can suit himself to various company, and, if he is not able to speak with the authority of the specialist, can help and stimulate in many cases where the latter is likely to be silent. If therefore we exclude the object of gaining information, which many people estimate above its importance in our present subject, we must decide that general information is the better condition to promote agreeable social intercourse.

28It may be attained in two directions; either knowledge of books or knowledge of men. The former is within the reach of most men, even though it requires a peculiar memory to make it applicable with ease and readiness. We may even say with truth that no man can attain to general knowledge nowadays without reading many books. The danger of a desultory habit, very likely to arise from skimming the mass of ephemeral literature now gushing from the press, is that the facts acquired will not be ordered, and will come out as untidy scraps, not as the details of a proper system of study. The books which a man reads may either be the great masters, which are perhaps rather useful for cultivating his deeper self than for ordinary converse, or the newest authors, whose merits are still upon trial, and who therefore afford an excellent field for discussion and criticism. In either case there is hardly a distinction to be drawn 29between the specialist and the generalist, for all people are supposed to study literature, and a good knowledge of either familiar or fashionable books can hardly fail to tell in any gathering of cultivated men and women.

§ 11. There is, however, another kind of general knowledge which is not so easy to acquire, for it requires long experience, a certain position in society, and means for foreign travel. I mean the general knowledge of remarkable men, concerning whom the speaker can tell his recollections. There is often a man of no great learning or ability whose official position, tact, or private means have brought him into contact with the great minds about whom every detail is interesting. Such a man’s general knowledge should always make him an agreeable member of society. Akin to this man is the experienced traveller who has wandered through many lands and seen the cities and the ways of men. 30The peculiar advantage of this kind of general knowledge for conversation is that its very acquisition comes in the practice of society, and that all those defects of narrowness, awkwardness, and self-consciousness which often mar the man of books, are rubbed off, as the phrase is, by constant contact with various men. The man of books, on the contrary, has to acquire his store in the silence of his study, and so by a process which rather untrains him for talking, so that even though his knowledge when acquired may be of more solid and permanent value, his way of producing it may put him at a disadvantage.

Let me add before leaving this head that the enormous increase of the means for acquiring knowledge, and the application of great inventions to save time in so doing, are by no means accompanied by corresponding strides in the art of conversation. All the knowledge of the day 31professes to be curtailed and collected into newspapers, periodicals, and handbooks, just as all the travelling of the day is done by rail and steam, with the aid of guide-books, which save the traveller all the trouble and all the education of thinking. The tourist who formerly went through Italy with his vetturino, and saw every village and road deliberately, talking with the people and observing national life, is now whirled through tunnels and by night from one capital to another, where he sees what Cook or Murray choose him to see, just as the man who trusts the newspapers for his knowledge gets scraps, perversions, even lies, served up for him by way of universal information. It is easy to see that this kind of training, as it interferes with both liberty and leisure of thought, and induces men to spend far too much time in gathering facts, is in no way conducive to the improvement of conversation.

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