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Knowledge is much more than power, it's key to a better life well-lived

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

I'd like to do a 180 on that time-worn adage: A lot of knowledge is a wonderful thing.

Way back in the day, I tried to engage my teenage daughter in a pep talk about school and its importance. Note the operative verb, "tried." For those who are parents of teenagers, I need not elaborate.

In our little talk, which on reflection was more like a monologue by me, we not only discussed the critical importance of education, but of knowledge itself. I offered three reasons why knowledge would have profound affects on her entire life. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is liberating. Knowledge is enriching.

I explained how important knowledge and education are to future success in a career, how it would ensure her independence and self-reliance and would make her entire life more fulfilling.

Then it struck me that I had placed the life-enriching value of knowledge last -- when I probably should have ranked it first. Society has conditioned us to believe the primary reason for an education is to secure a good job. While it's normal for us, as parents, to want a lifestyle for our children that's as good or better than ours -- which means going to good schools and getting good grades and ending up in a high-paying career -- we might overlook some of the fundamental benefits of a good education, whether formal or informal.

I offered my daughter an example: "When I used to do field work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I'd often go on walks with a biologist who could identify virtually every flower, plant, grass, sedge, shrub and tree by both their common and Latin names. He knew if they had medicinal value, or were edible or poisonous. He knew which plants flowered, and when. During his walk he took in a much larger, more complex world than I. In summary, I think his view of the natural world and all the things in it was much deeper and richer than mine."

Any scientist, even physicists who study subatomic particles, will tell you there is beauty and majesty in complexity. But scientific knowledge is just one avenue, I told her. The well of art, music and literature is infinitely deep.

At that time I think my daughter was already beginning to understand the richness found in music and literature -- and that the deeper one probes, the farther one is inclined to probe. When she talked about books she had read or reports she'd prepared, I was hearing someone looking for the hidden, unspoken meanings.

When I listened to her play the piano, I could tell she was learning to distinguish between what was elemental from what possessed complexity and resonance. Because my mother was a music teacher for nearly half a century, I offered my daughter the same advice as she: Music will become a friend that will stay with you for a lifetime. It will comfort you in the darkest of times and offer strength. It will give you internal power.

Of course, what I considered real-life examples probably seemed abstract to a teenager. We can tell our kids that they will someday use nearly every piece of knowledge they ever acquire, but they won't buy it. I know I didn't. I couldn't imagine how I would ever use algebra. Years later when I was trying to lay tile in my kitchen and make the measurements come out right, I understood.

History, I once thought, was a complete waste of time. It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I realized how much the past teaches us about the present, and even the future. Historians, I now believe, are some of the wisest people around.

Somewhere in that discussion with my daughter I could tell there might be some confusion between information and knowledge. Today's Internet-savvy students have access to much greater volumes of information than my generation. I use the term "access" because much information is transferred rather than studied, reflected upon and absorbed.

I told my daughter that information isn't really true knowledge until it's applied in some context or experience that relates to other experiences or situations. Knowledge comes when you understand the informational relationships and form conclusions, or hypotheses, through critical thinking. By this time her eyes were glazing over.

Then I took a different tack ... going straight to a subject I knew she loved. "Do you know much about horses?" I asked.

"I think so," she replied.

"Would you like to learn more?"

"Yes?"

"Why?"

"Because it would be fun."

"Why?"

"I don't know ... because it's something I like."

"That's right," I affirmed. "And the more you know about it, the more you'll appreciate it ... and more you learn about one thing, the more you'll want to learn about another."

I got her to semi-agree on that point and left it there. This is a conversation we would have many times.

I've met many people who became wise beyond any formal education they received. They were blessed with an innate curiosity that relentlessly drove them to ask questions, search for answers and ask more questions.

Back in the post-glaciation epoch before television or Internet or video games, kids like me would read books like the encyclopedia, maybe beginning with the letter A or B, and just read ... pure curiosity.

I hope that today's youth, armed with modern information-access tools, still possess a robust hunger for knowledge, driven by basic human curiosity. With knowledge their lives will become ever so much richer. With knowledge they'll have an opportunity to become successful in a given career. With knowledge they'll be in a position to help make their community, even the world, a much better place.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Frank Baker

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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