Our common knowledge

I think I mentioned that I was at a dinner the other night where George Will spoke. He was really wonderful. One of the things he brought up was the importance of books in the common knowledge of the past. He gave examples of understanding being communicated through quoting a well-known text.

I read something just now that reminded me of the talk. From the WSJ:

They might as well have asked Marie Antoinette to dig into her purse to support Madame Defarge’s knitting business.

Will, like this writer, is a fan of Dickens. And even though I’ve never actually managed to finish A Tale of Two Cities I know enough to understand these are two of the characters, and they are at opposite points in a spectrum in the story.

His point is that our new civilization is at risk of losing a common language. We rely on so many sources for information it’s unlikely to let us communicate well in a common cultural language. It’s an interesting point to consider. Is that why we are so fractured as a nation? I’m fond of Google News to supply my insights on the day through various sources, but I have a friend who gets her news from The Colbert Report. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that we’ve had some trouble managing decent political conversations over the last couple of years.

Will also told another story to show how diluted the asset of common knowledge has become. He used a favorite subject of that evening, President Bill Clinton, to provide the example.

Clinton said when campaigning in 1996:

“The last time I checked, the Constitution said, ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ That’s what the Declaration of Independence says.”

Here’s the audio clip. And the people cheered.

Now, more than a few of you probably already knew that was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and neither the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence that gave Clinton his line.

…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

(If you want a little more fun in your evening, go read Clinton Quotes.)

And the people cheered.

No wonder we are at such odds as a nation. I’m not saying we all need to read the same things, but we did, for a long while, have sources that let us develop at least a familiar frame of reference in our discussions. The Bible is one book that comes to mind. It’s so much more difficult to create a common ideal when we spend time arguing if the Bible should be the source of the example instead of the Koran. (And before you push back, I realize we can’t even decide if it’s the Koran or the Qur’an.) They are both considered holy books by those who read them, but it will take a great deal of time to teach America the Koran for reference – if that happens at all.

It can happen, though. Jews finally learned to live in a world with Christians. The two groups developed a common era to reference. But one thing is for certain: I don’t have the two thousand years it has taken to get to the job done. If we are going to survive as a nation, we need to find a few things on which we can all agree.

We need a common knowledge in hopes of developing a common goal or two. We need an understanding that tangents may provide diversion, but they won’t move us toward a goal. We need to get it together in time that my grandchildren are spared thinking that one day in 1996 Bill Clinton was the first to speak a great line in a campaign speech just because there’s an audio clip for proof.

How deep do you dig for your information? I’m curious, and will look forward to your responses.


  1. cindy. it is always good to re-look some great words made by well meaning people. just curious, but i believe there are so many versions of the bible(old or new testament ?) that the word has become rather passe. the old testament is a history of the jews, and you say the jews learned to live with the christians. when and how did that happen ? yes, there is a judeo-christian oversight based on one god and a good life. sports is the great equalizer where no-one asks and even cares about the religion or nationality of other competing in the game. next is the military where one life depends on the other life. 3. are the wonderful “preachers” of all religions who want a unified society. you are right that it takes time to dig for information assuming the sources are ethical. thats the problem with todays pols . they rant and rave about things they know nothing of little about.