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Common sense isn't very common.

The Arrogance of Knowledge

Posted by Keen Observer on February 10, 2012

So, on the suggestion of a friend, I watched Good Will Hunting, an “older” film that I had never before seen. It won a couple of deserved Academy Awards and launched (or dramatically improved) at least two careers, but until it was recommended, I hadn’t really had interest in it. When I asked my friend if she had any suggestions for another blog topic, she suggested that I review the film. I’m not really a film critic, but I do understand to some level critical analysis. However, after watching the film, I was struck by an idea based on the core scene of the film that seemed more of interest to me than a strict review.

The central scene of the film, on a park bench somewhere in Boston (ostensibly), involves the characters of Will Hunting (protagonist, played by Matt Damon) and Sean Maguire (antagonist, I think, played by Robin Williams). The discussion is essentially one-sided, where Maguire starts to break through the defensive shell erected by the prodigy genius Hunting to protect himself after a violent childhood in foster care. Hunting understands things around him without effort, reads everything and remembers what he reads, extrapolates, analyses. His problems lie primarily in anti-social behaviour and an unwillingness to risk personal loss outside his core group of friends.

In a series of previous encounters with psychologists, he disassembles—humbles—them, rather than allowing them be able to use their services on him to deal with the pain of his past. He had also done the same thing with Maguire, cutting almost to the core of Maguire’s sense of self and dissatisfaction following the death of his wife some years before. In his own way Maguire’s defences were as solid as Hunting’s. But in this scene, he explains that, despite all Hunting’s intelligence and his gifts and his attempted evisceration of Maguire’s character in their previous meeting, he’s “just a kid.”

The scene is pivotal—the film prior to this is really just preamble—and his words take down Hunting’s character a few pegs in a way he’d never been addressed before, with compassion and understanding and truth:

 Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right?
[
Will nods]
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. [copied and pasted from IMDB]

This scene represents in my view the turning point of the film, where Hunting begins to grow and change (and Maguire in parallel). But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. It has been established by this point in the film that Hunting is a rare genius with eidetic memory. He can learn things quickly, but he also understands them: it’s not just rote memorisation. From what he reads and learns, he can extrapolate beyond to new understanding and knowledge. There is a later scene in which he describes his gift like that of Mozart or Beethoven, that they just know the piano, but couldn’t explain how.

He has this gift, and because of his violent childhood and adolescence, he doesn’t really know what to make of it. As part of his defence mechanism against his memories, he wields his gift like a weapon, through arrogance and being cock-sure, defensive, defiant. But in some ways he doesn’t really learn, because it’s all just theoretical knowledge, what some might call “book learning” or “book smarts”. Maguire’s litany hit Hunting hard, I think, because it’s truth he knows, but perhaps without acknowledgement until that point. He knows that he’s super-smart, but he also knows at some level that it isn’t enough, but he can’t figure out what or why.

True learning can’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen because of reading or instruction. These are just paths. It doesn’t happen just because of observation, either. Someone can observe a hand get burned in a fire, but there is no connection to the observer; absent the analysis and knowledge, the observer might not learn that fire burns without experimentation. Someone may have what are known as “street smarts”—a counterpoint to book smarts—and be very wise in the ways of the world, but have little skill in applying his knowledge in other settings. An example of this might be a natural gear-head, someone who can break down and build up a car’s engine, but with no idea of how internal combustion works, or how to do something similar to a small appliance. The simplest form of this might be Pavlovian conditioning: I know that if a bell rings, I will be fed, but I don’t know why or how.  And I likely don’t care, because I can’t conceive of anything beyond the bell and the food.

So, from my point of view—and I may be re-hashing years of educational research already published—there are these four primary facets of learning: knowledge (information, data, etc), observation, analysis, and empirical testing (or validation); this view is not different in any major way from the scientific method. True learning, to me, requires a balance among these methods, or perhaps a progression through, depending; any subset of these four will result in incomplete learning. For Hunting, he had immense knowledge, but little on the empirical side; what he did “know” empirically was largely false, the product of his dysfunctional childhood. He was so intensely out of balance that therapy and love were what it took to boost him out of his rut, a rut he couldn’t even see (or had long since ceased to acknowledge).

I have met a few intensely-smart people in my life. Not a one of them is smart in the same way as the others. Some of them are (or were) sort of “broken” in some way also, but not to the degree of Will Hunting. One or two of them had a lot of book learning to accompany amazing intellect. For them, though, the book learning wasn’t the type of handicap that it seemed at times to be for Hunting. What crippled him in part was his assertive arrogance that grew out of his childhood abuse as a means of self-protection. And arrogance is an impediment to true learning. Someone who is arrogant about their knowledge or intelligence generally cannot be taught, nor can he be “made” to learn, except with topics that interest him. And held “truths” cannot be challenged by mere words, and sometimes not even by self-evident facts.

I speak, here, from experience. I have been guilty of this attitude myself at periods in my life, especially in situations where I was convinced I was dealing with someone far less intelligent than I. One specific case I can recall without effort was the last time I sat a well as well-site geologist. The details shall remain obscure, but a rig hand told me something that I disregarded, as it conflicted with what I had been expecting. I continued on, and the net result was at least another day’s rig time and a useless core cut, extracted, and analysed. The total cost of my arrogance in this situation was in the tens of thousands of dollars to the operating company, and little to no return on their cost investment. And by self-selection partially as a result of this, I did not work again in the oil industry for five-plus years. The economic and personal costs resulting from this decision were significant to me, and in some ways are still felt. This is my personal example of the cost of arrogance, and I must be constantly on guard against recurrences in my daily life.

For Hunting, his personal costs were greater in some ways, but ultimately, with his arrogance broken—or at least bent—he was finally able to recognise that his prodigious knowledge and intellect were insufficient, and after struggling, he was able to begin to learn the lessons that people around him had been trying to teach him. These lessons had stacked up, and then they all fell rapidly into place, once his emotional and arrogance blocks were overcome. And once these blocks to learning—especially self-learning—began crumbling, the world opened up to him in a way he had never previously imagined.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting when it occurred to me. Your mileage may vary.

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