Excerpts from the essay “Good Taste in Knowledge” in the book The Importance of Living (1938) by Lin Yutang:
The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct. The cultured man or the ideal educated man is not necessarily one who is well-read or learned, but one who likes and dislikes the right things.
…To be well-informed, or to accumulate facts and details, is the easiest of all things. There are many facts in a given historical period that can easily be crammed into our mind, but discernment in the selection of significant facts is a vastly more difficult thing and depends upon one’s point of view.
An educated man, therefore, is one who has the right loves and hatreds. This we call taste, and with taste comes charm. Now to have taste or discernment requires a capacity for thinking things through to the bottom, an independence of judgement, and an unwillingness to be bulldozed by any form of humbug, social, political, literary, artistic, or academic. There is no doubt that we are surrounded in our adult life by a wealth of humbugs.
…When a man is wrong, he is wrong, and there is no need for one to be impressed and overawed by a great name or by the number of books that he has read and we haven’t. Taste, then, is closely associated with courage, as the Chinese always associate shih and tan, and courage or independence of judgement, as we know, is such a rare virtue among mankind.
…Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship; he said, “Thinking without learning makes one flighty, and learning without thinking is a disaster.” He must have seen enough students of the latter type in his days for him to utter this warning, a warning very much needed in the modern schools. It is well known that modern education and the modern school system in general tend to encourage scholarship at the expense of discernment and look upon the cramming of information as an end in itself, as if a great amount of scholarship could already make an educated man. But why is thought discouraged at school? Why has the educational system twisted and distorted the pleasant pursuit of knowledge into a mechanical, measured, uniform and passive cramming of information? Why do we place more importance on knowledge than on thought? How do we come to call a college graduate an educated man simply because he has made up the necessary units or weekhours of psychology, medieval history, logic, and “religion”? Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student’s mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?
The reason is simple. We have this system because we are educating people in masses, as if in a factory, and anything which happens inside a factory must go by a dead and mechanicial system. In order to protect its name and standardise its products, a school must certify them with diplomas. With diplomas, then, comes the necessity of grading, and with the necessity of grading come school marks, and in order to have school marks, there must be recitations, examinations, and tests. The whole thing forms an entirely logical sequence and there is no escape from it. But the consequences of having mechanical examinations and tests are more fatal than we imagine. For it immediately throws the emphasis on memorization of facts rather than on the development of taste or judgement. I have been a teacher myself and know that it is easier to make a set of questions on historical dates than on vague opinions on vague questions. It is also easier to mark the papers.
The danger is that after having instituted this system, we are liable to forget that we have already wavered, or are apt to waver from the true ideal of education, which as I say is the development of good taste in knowledge.
…We must give up the idea that a man’s knowledge can be tested or measured in any form whatsoever. Chuangtse has well said, “Alas, my life is limited, while knowledge is limitless!” The pursuit of knowledge is, after all, only like the exploration of a new continent, or “an adventure of the soul,” as Anatole France says, and it will remain a pleasure, instead of becoming a torture, if the spirit of exploration with an open, questioning, curious and adventurous mind is maintained. Instead of the measured, uniform and passive cramming of information, we have to place this ideal of a positive, growing individual pleasure. Once the diploma and the marks are abolished, or treated for what they are worth, the pursuit of knowledge becomes positive, for the student is at least forced to ask himself why he studies at all.
…At present, all students study for the registrar, and many of the good students study for their parents or teachers or their future wives, that they may not seen ungrateful to their parents who are spending so much money for their support at college, or because they wish to appear nice to a teacher who is nice and conscientious to them, or that they may go out of school and earn a higher salary to feed their families. I suggest that all such thoughts are immoral. The pursuit of knowledge should remain nobody else’s business but one’s own, and only then can education become a pleasure and become positive.
Taken from this online transcription by Peter Saint-Andre.