A State Polymath
Bill Long 4/24/08
Oregon Should Lead the Way..
If there is anything that is clear to me about myself as I face my 56th birthday, it is that I am a seeker and clarifier of knowledge. I wasn't always as committed as I now am to developing broad, deep and comprensive knowledge of things. I can think of three things that dissuaded me from developing comprehensive knowledge over the years. The first was my Evangelical religious convictions. Well do I recall staff members and fellow students in college telling me that the importance of personal evangelism or religious fellowship should so control my time that I only ought to study just enough to get through my classes. One person explained it as follows: 'Study is like air..it tends to fill up all your available space or time if you allow it.' The implication was--don't make much room for it. I don't think I had enough personal confidence at that time just to focus on study. Or, alternatively, I was interested in exploring some of my interests and gifts in group leadership and public visibility. After all, I could get A's, even at an Ivy League college, without doing much work. Maybe evangelism/fellowship were the most important thing in life.
The second source of discouragement to develop wide knowledge was my Ivy League professors themselves. This was especially the case in graduate school. They looked down on my taking languages I may never "need" (such as Syriac); they were adamant that I not take courses in the history department on religious subjects (religion in America); they barely let me audit courses in classics. Their point was this: 'you are now focused on graduate work. There is enough to learn from our department. Stay here.' Then, third, I didn't pursue knowledge with abandon as a husband and father of young children both because of my desire to be an "available and egalitarian dad" as well as ambitions I had to be a person visible in the public life of the state.
It was not as if I was uninterested in broad learning throughout the first half-century of my life. It is just that other things, practical and ideological, tended to push those interests aside. I had to earn a living; I believed (at times) that other tasks were more urgent. But once I gave up my legal career when I was 50, I realized that my time had come really to focus on learning. Deep. Broad. Wide. And then write about it. And write. And write. Ever since I took this vow about five years ago, my life has not been the same. I feel privileged to have had time and resources to pursue this broad, deep and comprehensive knowledge. And, I hope, others are and will benefit from this.
It dawned on me, however, as I continue my intellectual quests, that what I offer in my learning, both in my example and my product, is something that is of value not simply to myself or my readers, but to my state also. I propose in this essay the creation of an office of the "State Polymath" with the responsibility of pursuing vast and diverse sources of knowledge, publishing the results to the people of Oregon and encouraging Oregonians to believe that the gathering of and commitment to knowledge is the first step in being able to transform the world. In our information-rich and information-based society, there is nothing so important as inculcating in the young and old alike the importance of learning and mastery of knowledge.
Most states have state economists and state climatologists, even though Oregon abolished the latter about 20 years ago. Many states have a state forester, a state librarian, a state geologist or even a state herpetologist (GA has one of these). All of these state positions are based on two perceived needs of the state--to protect the health and resources of the state, and to try to provide for the state's prosperity. I am not saying that these are unimportant things; indeed, I support the continuance of these. But times have changed. We now live in a knowledge-rich and information-based society. The key to the future will be those who know how to innovate with the sources of knowledge at our disposal--and learn how to build the future off the knowledge we have. To have a state office/officer whose role it is to make sure that the state always has as its goal the focus on developing knowledge would be a wise use of resources.
Must this knowledge be "useful?" I suppose there could be debates on this issue, but the major thing I have learned every since I committed myself deeply to my projects several years ago is that you never really know what knowledge is useful when you are learning it. Oh, some knowledge might have a utility in the present, to get you through a task at hand. But, in the long run, you don't know if what you are learning now will bear a lot of fruit. Some things you think are absolutely worthless may have a life to them in a decade that you never could anticipate. So, let knowledge be pursued with eagerness. Let a person stand in front of the people of the state and declare the importance of knowledge for the health and wealth and future of our society. And, have the people pay for it. It would be a lot more useful expenditure than many of the things that are currently buried in our state budgets.
And, probably not surprisingly, I have the perfect candidate in mind for the job...