And so another memorable and enjoyable 3 day krashkurs comes to an end; another group of naval engineers i probably won’t see again – all fine fellows, dour, gravely humorous, diligent, natural pedants.

For this last day i brought out the rods – the Cuisenaire Rods. These are really ingenious and appealing wooden rods, of varying length and colour. i split my engineers into two groups – each had to design a “machine”, and then describe it to the other group, in sufficient detail for the others to assemble a copy.

i wasn’t sure how they would take it – i feared they might find it childish, or pedantically object that they couldn’t construct a machine out of nothing but wooden rods. However, they took to it with gusto, displaying a spirit of Teutonic exactitude and orderliness, along with a surprisingly childlike sense of fun. Sample dialogue:

Engineer 1: So. We begin now. Put two orange blocks parallel on the ground floor.

Engineer 2: The distance between?

Engineer 1: Distance is one small yellow block. Approximately 40 millimetres.

Engineer 2: Ja, alles klar. Continue please with the instructions.

i found it absorbing to watch – i could feel their attention and sober excitement, as they leafed through technical dictionaries and came up with instructions like: “Now we make an inclined plane”.

Although i usually forget their names as soon as the course ends, i like my students very much. They are a fund of submarining anecdotes, and have that slight glow of knowledge, which i observed also in the Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, and Occupational Therapists in my hospital job in Manchester – irradiated by knowledge. i probably wouldn’t have noticed it if i hadn’t worked for 3 years in the kinds of places where no one – from the data entry grunts up to the managers – knows anything about anything except quotas, targets, the work itself being so soul-numbingly crude one could learn everything in a couple of hours.

Nor is real knowledge anything like academic knowledge, at least as i encountered it – most academics know very little about anything outside of their very narrow field, the inevitable consequence of “research assessment” (publish or perish), and the huge & insane rise in student numbers (and therefore student essays). A century ago, academics tended to have a dual focus: highly specialised in their field, but with the time to read & think about apparently unrelated subjects – and i believe that irrelevant penumbra in fact made for much greater originality and penetration than one would find in academia today, among the hyper-specialised Poloniuses, those trapped in the hamster’s cage of “research assessment” and student essays (one tutor, then in his 40s, estimated he’d marked 8 million words of student essays). It also made for a kind of cross fertilisation; for example, two of Wittgenstein’s favoured victims (for his monologues) were not philosophers but economists – Pierro Sraffa and Keynes.

All that’s gone now – thanks to the reforms of the 80s, academics today are, i think, largely uninterested in knowledge; very interested in how they’re going to write an article in the next 6 months, to keep their jobs, and alas very interested in whether they can mark 60 bad student essays in a week without going insane from boredom and sleep deprivation – but the fire of knowledge, that they do not have.

Whether designing submarines is in itself a good, i cannot say. But the knowledge of real things, testing and using and fulfilling the human mind – that is a good. Knowledge may not be wisdom but it is certainly more attractive than ignorance.

Knowledge is at least a step in the right direction; one is more likely to glimpse wisdom, that great mystery, while hunting knowledge, than in ignorance. Whether the knowledge is submarine lore or Speech Therapy or economics –