Thursday, February 11, 2010
For everyone in the world, there will always be chunks of cultural literacy which are missing from their lexicon, and it can take quite a bit of work to plug those holes. But for people from insular, ethnocentric societies, the problem tends to be far worse. Depending on what kind of community one comes from, the lack of familiarity with commonly accepted knowledge can be a formidable challenge to overcome.
For myself, the realization that I had so much to learn came about as I gradually expanded my social circle from the close-knit group of fellow chareidi yeshiva people to more modern-orthodox groups and then to secular and even non-Jewish circles. When I was chareidi, I knew pretty much everything that I needed to in regards to being able to be socially and culturally conversant. Our interactions tended to stay focused on the goings-on of our world (yeshivish politics, halachic issues, simcha developments, chulent recipes, etc.). When it occasionally ventured into other arenas, such as in regards to political or scientific issues, even though I might not have been too familiar with it, I knew I could quickly figure out what page I was expected to be on by simply listening carefully to my peers. When issues arose that were outside our purview, the general attitude was one of dismissiveness - "Why should we worry about such narishkeit?" - and so it never concerned me very much that I was wholly ignorant about so much that the rest of the world found important.
When I first started to mingle with non-chareidim, there were often moments of utter confusion for me. On one occasion, a coworker mentioned how someone at work looked like Jennifer Aniston, and seeing the blank look on my face, she said "You know, from Friends." I innocently replied, "I don't know her. She's not one of my friends." Ignorance about pop cultural icons was often a source of mild embarrassment for me, but I recognized that being unfamiliar with celebrities and TV shows was really not that important in the grand scheme of things, and other than having to put up with the surprised reactions of my friends, it didn't really bother me too much.
Also a frequent source of discomfort to me was my lack of familiarity with established cultural institutions, both the real kind and the figurative. Admitting to not having a college degree might elicit a merely condescending glance, but revealing that you don't even know that Yale and Harvard are the foremost American universities is a special kind of faux pas. During a discussion where a friend was lambasting a certain newspaper's tendency to editorialize news reporting, I innocently remarked that I didn't see what the problem was. After all, what was wrong with a newspaper reflecting the owners views? Indeed, in the world I came from, that was the very point of publishing anything - to promote one's ideology. The concept of journalistic objectivity was entirely foreign to me. Over time I stumbled upon many other commonly used cultural terms of which I was not just unfamiliar, but some that I hadn't even heard uttered before: GOP, baby-boomer, Bohemian, filibuster, post-modernism, transsexual, Nietzsche, racism, separation of powers, imperialism, Kafkaesque, genetics. All these words were coming up in conversations and the things I was reading, but what did they really mean, and how in the world was I supposed to find out? (This was before Wikipedia was as good as it is now.) The truth is, probably most of the other people around me were as unfamiliar with this stuff as I was, but at the time, I was too intimidated by my own ignorance to even consider this.
Even when it came to areas of Jewish knowledge I was falling short. Although I had never been one of the powerhouses of the beis medrash, I was still fluent enough in the ideas, personas, and foundations of that intellectual sphere to move within it comfortably. But I was quickly discovering once I stepped out of my chareidi comfort zone that the range of my Jewish knowledge was extremely narrow, and so many of the things that I had assumed were universally accepted were actually far from that. Ok, I didn't expect MO communities to accept Rav Elyashuv as the godol hador, but do you really mean to tell me that there are sources to justify not believing in a global flood or that Noach miraculously saved all the animals in the teiva? How can any frum person ever say such a thing?!
However, even with all that, what was most disconcerting of all was the increasingly frequent revelations of just how abysmally ignorant I was in regards to the many significant contemporary and historical issues that were relevant to my life. For the first time in my life, I started really participating in discussions about issues, and I quickly realized that I didn't know squat about the most fundamental elements of any issue. When it came to politics, I didn't have even a basic understanding of how the government worked, or what the different parties stood for. When discussing historical events, I was forced to acknowledge that my views were usually nothing more than superficial rehashings of what my teachers had told me, and that I didn't really know much about the issues at all. Once, in the middle of a heated debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I suddenly realized that I couldn't even name the different Arab-Israeli wars, what they were fought over, and what their outcomes were. Over and over I found myself facing the sad realization that I barely ever knew enough about a topic to converse about it with the barest minimum of familiarity. In so many areas - history, science, Jewish thought, world affairs, basic geography, notable figures and events, and so many more topics that I was finding myself exposed to - I was horrifically, abysmally, ignorant. The realization was both humbling and terrifying.
And so I set about trying to learn about everything I was missing. I started downloading Billboard top hits of the 90's and 80's to find out about popular music (Napster was just taking off then). I started watching the famous shows and the classic movies that everyone always brought up in conversation. (The West Wing was a great introduction to politics). I went to the library and when I couldn't find any beginners books on the topics I wanted to learn, I went to the children section and took out books from there. (I highly recommend this series for learning US History.) I visited museums (and spoke to the curators when I could). I read newspapers as much as possible. I participated in online discussion groups devoted to certain topics. I looked things up online whenever possible. I found smart people who liked to talk a lot and listened to them. Slowly and gradually I managed to slightly fill up the gaping holes in my cultural literacy so I could converse with the average educated person without sounding like a total fool. I became more adept at assessing what was actually common knowledge and what was more specialized information and by doing so, became more confident with saying, "I'm not familiar with this topic. Can you give me some background about it?" The more I learned, the more I discovered how much I was ignorant of. And the more ideas I became exposed to, the more I came to realize just how inadequate my critical thinking faculties had been until then.
Naturally, there are still vast swaths of cluelessness in my mind. But my life now is such that I'm no longer as urgently concerned with turning those desolate patches into vibrant meadows of intellectual ferment. Knowing about what everyone else considers essential is not as important to me as simply learning interesting things that catch my fancy. However, I can't help wondering, if one were to make a list of all the areas of knowledge which are important for an engaged and informed person of the western world to be familiar with, what should go on that list? And what did you focus on when you decided to become a more educated person?
Photo credit: flickr user James Yeung
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