Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge

(with apologies to Lakatos and Musgrave)

When you’re a professor, you’re likely to get involved in the occasional discussion about the high price of a college education. One common answer is, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” As the Freakonomics guys demonstrated, that’s also a correct answer: college degrees generally pay for themselves in well under a decade. But it’s also oversimplified, and a bit insulting, since education and ignorance aren’t complete opposites.

I think a better answer is this: Whatever the major, and whatever the university, education imparts a respect for knowledge, and that respect is one of the most valuable traits a person can have.

Note that I did not write, nor did I mean, that education imparts a respect for people with knowledge. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. It teaches us that knowledge deserves even more respect than people who have a lot of it. Knowledge is the cornerstone of responsible citizenship, the fuel for the engine of a creative economy, and a hell of a boon when working a crossword puzzle. More than that, though, respect for knowledge is crucial for success and personal happiness.

Why is that? Simply put, when you respect knowledge sufficiently, you don’t fear criticism, and fear of criticism is a powerful barrier to growth. My grandmother once told me, “there’s no such thing as constructive criticism.” With all due respect to Grandma, she was totally wrong. A healthy chunk of my job involves constructive criticism—pointing out the ways in which people can take a good idea or a good piece of work and turn it into a great one. At the same time, I subject my own work to the scrutiny and criticism of others. Far from being impossible, constructive criticism is essential to the growth of knowledge.

Does it feel good, when someone points out a gaping hole in your argument? Sure, the embarrassment does sting a bit. But it’s far outweighed by the rush of knowing that there’s a better answer to be found out there, and if I find it, it’ll give me a much more compelling answer to the question I’m trying to understand. Of course, criticism can be unnecessarily dickish, even scathing, despite the fact that we all receive as well as give. After a while, though, you learn to ignore all that and ask yourself, “Does this person have anything valuable to tell me?”

Putting knowledge over ego is a fantastic way to get ahead in the world. To take a simple example, I occasionally get asked by chefs what I thought of the meal I’ve just had. If I sense that they’re just looking for validation, I’ll say something blandly positive. Most of the time, though, I gather they’re looking for an honest answer, and I give it to them. Some of them thank me for giving them candid feedback. Some don’t. The ones who do generally succeed, in a very tough business—not because they listen to me, but because they listen. They understand that feedback, even if it’s not always perfect, is vital for success. I strongly suspect that, if you talk to nearly any successful business owner, you’ll find the same attitude.

The same principle even applies to our relations with each other. Do you like to hear that you’ve got bad breath? I doubt it. But you’d probably rather know it, and be able to do something about it, than walk around in a halitosic miasma. Yet for some reason the same principle doesn’t often apply to our political beliefs, or our moral judgments, or our grammar and punctuation, or our fashion choices. It should. We might actually find more common ground with each other. And somebody might even tell those people in Crocs to get a proper pair of shoes.