Still reading The Name of the Rose, which really is a fabulous book. The main characters in the tale are Brothers William and Adso, a wise, insightful monk and his young apprentice (who also narrates the tale). I just finished up a chapter in which William and the abbot of the monastery in which our heroes are investigating a murder have been speaking about the political strife in the surrounding world and the evils taking place in the monastery itself. The chapter closes with a fascinating little exchange between William and Adso.
“Then we are living in a place abandoned by God, ” I [Adso] said, disheartened.
“Have you found any places where God would have felt at home?” William asked me, looking down from his great height.
Then he sent me to rest. As I lay on my pallet, I concluded that my father should not have sent me out into the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.
(Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver; New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983: 155).
Adso’s reflections resonate with me rather deeply some days. After two years of graduate level theological education I tend to liken my current level of reflection to swimming in very deep water. I feel that I am a strong swimmer, but at some point the only way to test your mettle is with the real thing. This means, of course, that you need to swim in water so deep that it is entirely likely that you might drown. That, I think, is the feeling Adso is communicating with his statement that he is “learning too many things.” A person in our cultural milieu might respond that it is impossible to learn too much about anything for learning is an ethically neutral behavior. Adso knows that in reality things are otherwise.
All learning is the product of discourse, which is to say an exchange of thought between acting subjects. As post-structuralist, and in particular ideological, criticism tells us, all discourse is by nature rhetoric as well. There is no disinterested exchange precisely because an exchange requires subjects and subjects (as opposed to objects) cannot be disinterested (at least I don’t think they can). When you learn you learn from a person with an agenda or through an experience that helps to shape your agenda. I am not implying that we are blank pages upon which the prejudices of our forbears are written in pristine ink. I would say that as learners we are as interested (that is to say prejudiced) as our teachers. The result of the learning process is an infinitely complex interchange between discourses in which nobody comes out unchanged.
Learning, the pursuit of knowledge, is an ethical activity and of this we must be aware. I’m not sure this awareness will save those of us foolish/brave/arrogant/passionate enough to plunge into waters that are so deep, but then, if we do drown, at least our demise will be our own damn fault. Be cautious, my friends, before venturing out into the world in search of that coveted thing called Truth. You may, like Adso (and me some days), come to the painful realization that you are learning too many things.