Slow Knowledge

Jun 27, 2015

Before the terrible shooting in Charleston on June 17, there was no Wikipedia page for the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Over the next 36 hours, 44 different editors made 152 edits to create a “solid” page, according to a fascinating blog post by librarian/blogger Peter Murray. Murray created an animation of that Wikipedia page so we can see it grow from “stub” to full page, complete with references. It’s worth taking a look, both at the animation and at the “finished” Wikipedia page. Murray describes how he built the animation, too, for you coding geeks.

Rarely do we get to visualize knowledge building like this. In fact, rarely do we think about knowledge building. When we suddenly want to know things, where do we go? Wikipedia, if we’re in a big hurry. But where do the Wikipedia editors get knowledge? Well, I followed the references on the Emanuel AME page, and found a National Park Service National Register of Historic Places form, filled out by a South Carolina archivist. I clicked through to a New York Times article, in which the writer interviewed a researcher and author who teaches at Yale and whose family goes back many generations in the Low Country of South Carolina, about which he has written a history. I found references to a hefty tome (677 pages) on Black American Heritage Sites, written by a woman who had traveled around, evidently for years, to write about all these sites.

Sooner or later, if you work your way down a knowledge food chain—if it’s a good one—you meet people who are creating a solid base of knowledge the slow way. I tell my students to cherish the footnotes in their Shakespeare volume because “People gave their lives for those footnotes.” It’s true. There are people who spend their working lives becoming so deeply knowledgeable about certain areas of human endeavor, they can confidently and instructively remark on the various meanings of the word “fancy” in 1599. We need these people.

I say this as a scholar, of course, a member of a profession that often comes under criticism in our ultra-pragmatic, profit-driven, high-speed nation for being obscure and irrelevant. Why waste resources, human or otherwise, on history and art? Our nation needs roads and high tech! What on earth is the point of spending your life studying ridiculous things such as “Ottoman Administration and the Timar System” or “Antiquarian Patronage and Illustration in the 1740s”? (Note: actual titles taken from the work of two of my most esteemed colleagues.) I mean, who cares?

Well, I’m glad someone does. After all, this is God’s world, so that any knowledge about this world is worthy for its own sake and for the sheer delight of knowing. Right?

I believe that, and I don’t want to dilute that theological argument with a pragmatic one. But there is a pragmatic argument, and here it is: If we are to face big and difficult questions with wisdom and discernment, sooner or later we need to depend on slow knowledge.

We need to work our way down through the ridiculous media, past the thoughtful media, down to the fine investigative reporting, and then right down to those who have built knowledge slowly, patiently, usually in the company of a knowledge-building guild.

We see this phenomenon most pointedly in a moment of crisis. When the World Trade Center towers went down on September 11, 2001, suddenly those scholars who had spent their lives laboring in obscurity studying the history of Islam were getting desperate calls from reporters. We all wanted to know: What is the history of the interpretation of the Qur’an with regard to violence? What does jihad mean, really? What are the different approaches of various expressions of Islam today on the question of violence and pluralism? Reporters could get statistics and basic facts from police departments and building officials. They could call up politicians and interview them for reactions. But for the big, important—and suddenly urgent—questions, we all had to depend on people who had spent decades striving to understand something big and complicated, something that demanded years of attention and care.

The same was true after the Boston Marathon bombings. Suddenly, we all wanted to know about the history between Chechnya and Russia, and whether any of it could be relevant to two immigrant kids in Cambridge, Mass. No one could figure that out from scratch in two days, no matter how fast their internet connection or how good the Wikipedia page on Chechen history. We needed people who understood the deep structures after years of observation and study.

We might calls news events like these—bombings and shootings—an “acute crisis.” In a “slow crisis,” too, we need slow knowledge, perhaps even more so. I’ve heard interviews in the last few days with historians of the American South as we try to understand what the confederate flag means and how it ought to be used or not used today. What has it meant in the past? Turns out its meanings have changed over time. We only know that in this moment because historians have been laboring for years in the archives, taking notes, writing, going to conferences, building deep networks of knowledge.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage rights has the internet buzzing with reactions from all directions. People are angry, horrified, thrilled, relieved, bewildered, fearful, exhilarated. Reporters interview all the presidential candidates, pundits cough up their punditry, people in the street deliver sound bites. We are awash at the moment in surface clamor.

With any huge news story, surface clamor is the simple carbohydrate of the media. It’s easily chewed, it feels good, and it burns away quickly. Beneath the surface clamor, we look for the thoughtful discernment, and I’m grateful for the many people who do that well.

But today, I look beneath even that layer to the knowledge-builders underneath. I celebrate the scholars, librarians, archivists, and researchers—the patient people who labor in obscurity in the stacks, the labs, and the field, building knowledge the slow way, dedicating decades of their lives to some seemingly nonsensical obsession. They do it because they love the work, because knowledge is worthy for its own sake, and because there’s a chance that someday, we will all desperately need what they know, RIGHT NOW.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

Blog archive

The Twelve
the post calvin
Calvin College