Is erudition a problem?

While you enjoy Abdul’s post below, please checkout my guest post on RK’s blog – Has twitter killed blogging & How to blog in the age of Twitter.  – Sukumar


“Larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.”Stanley Fish as quoted in NYTimes.

From Class V onwards I studied Hindi for my second language in school. However, Tamil as the medium of conversation and medaipeccchu around me never ceased to fascinate me. Among them were the speeches of one of our Tamil Pandits Mr. Swaminathan. I was bowled over by the mastery of the language but was also simply transfixed by the power and speed of his delivery. Today I would consider him an erudite presence simply because I did not know the word erudite well enough then to use it.

That school student went onto attend several years later a workshop on ‘legislative processes.’ I was left well-confused at the end of the workshop, when speaker after speaker, or rather trainer after trainer, called the participants of the workshop as “erudite.” I was scratching my head as to beyond a comment or two by the well-meaning participant as to what they had said that could be considered erudite.

As Stanley Fish’s sharp comment raises the question: is erudition of any use these days? Whether it is business or the academy or society, the clamour by our citizenry is clear: give us knowledge that is useful. The first problem is how do we define knowledge that is useful? Is it only technology or science and technology or those plus the arts, humanities and social sciences and those plus that of theology and divinity. There is of course, the discipline of the history of ideas at which we all converge, have a stake but is an interest-area that is yet to enter the popular domain. Things have reached a stage of dispensability that not just the humanities but the conventional physics, chemistry and biology departments are coming under threat from funding crunches because they have neither anything more erudite to offer or are no longer considered useful.

One wonders what the Sir Isaac Newton’s up in the stars would be thinking. Add to it the processes of globalization that have added to the confusion. Everything that is profound /eternal and even the repository of modern knowledge has to be reduced to sound and visual bytes over the media, if not over cyberspace in order to gain TRPs. Erudition is headed to be reduced to a competition for eyeballs. So, while some would contend that globalization has actually expanded the vistas for knowledge, I would think it has actually shrunk that space. Parents are worried about the TV fixation of their children even if it is over the innocuous cartoon and animation channels.

Story-telling by parents/adults to the children about the great warriors, legends, Mahatmas, the scientists and the scholars is passé. There does not seem to be any inspiration found outside the electronic medium. However, are the parents themselves any better role-models for their children with their regular consumption of inane, hysterical and retrograde soap-operas? This is not to say that regurgitating ancient wisdom for 21st century media is bad but can we afford it to stop there or lose the originals. Or did I hear someone say that McLuhan style that the ‘medium is the message?’

What is the problem with erudition? Erudite interventions are perceived as ‘heavy’, they may make one think and they might intervene in the way we organize our life. We have passed Gen-X, Gen-Y and Gen-Next and now we are thinking about Gen-Z. So erudition is emerging to be a different kind of space it seems. It is to be safely contained within lecture halls of universities or debating societies or certain platforms dedicated for that purpose. Perhaps it was always that way and this post might be flogging a dead horse.

Does erudition have something of a preachy-preachy tone to it or are people just intimidated that there is someone out there who might have some wisdom different from theirs and has a perspective on a subject dear to him/her? SME’s or Subject-matter experts are doted upon within industry. Is not an erudite person simply an SME on a particular field plus that special something? What is that special something: call it commitment or effort or wisdom, that person has chosen to break barriers through knowledge.

It is no one’s contention that all conversation must be erudite and we should all be serious all the time. Some of the most erudite interventions can and have happened over humour. Sir Winston Churchill was a classic example of an erudite man who is humorous. Slightly different but of that genre is Mr. Khushwant Singh. There are yet so many examples of satirists who were erudite in their interventions. Surely there would emerge erudite people among Gen-Z who would make people stand up and listen.

Part of the problem with erudition is its boring. One can get very impatient with erudition. Of what use is (un)solicited gyan? It is a sedative like no other in the hands of the untrained and the disinterested. So, what are our priorities? Why do we moan about so many social problems the moment we step out of our homes and offices onto the roads and wish for alternatives to decadent politicos?  Why are we today effectively  clamoring for “thought leaders” rather than politicians, those who can provide “solutions” to our economic, political and social problems.

I think we have reached a stage where we are dismissive about knowledge. There is one more problem with certain forms of erudition. If you have it, flaunt it. However, most erudite people are of a modest variety. The world often passes by erudition. The brushing aside of erudition to what avail? The honest answer is I don’t know. The generation after Gen-Z or beginning with Gen-Z might make haste to claim ownership of that erudition or the global intellectual heritage that is truly ours and useful to boot. At least, that’s my dream. 🙂


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 29, 2009, 9:17 pm:

    Interesting question Abdul. Wonder if erudition being associated with being Geeky or Nerdy has something to do with it? Why is it that the erudite cannot pass along stuff in simple ways? All one needs to do is to pick a scientific paper and try to read it? – it would seem like the erudite seem to have evolved their own language eruditese 🙂 This is true of the legal profession also, where the agreements are written in legalese, which a lay person cannot understand.

    On the other hand as you say, erudition is absolutely essential. We cannot expect to solve problems with superficial knowledge in any domain/field.

  2. Quote

    Sukumar, thanks. ‘Eruditese’ is indeed an interesting pun.:)

    You are right in so far as sometimes people try to make their expressions verbose, jargonated and high-sounding as if to impress the listener/reader. However, that would be defeating the notion of erudite.
    One who is erudite should be able to reduce concepts and theories to their first principles. Only when the message gets across has the erudite succeeded in transmitting knowledge.

    This post poses a different question. Have we reached a stage in society where the presence of competent and sensitive (not the kind mentioned by you) people is seen to be an irritable presence? We just dont want that kind of conversation anymore. Its as if we are saying lets have more of the Page 3’s, the grapevine and at the most some technology to get by say using our gadgets.

  3. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 29, 2009, 10:37 pm:

    It is the same question that i tried to answer. Erudite seem to speak in Eruditese, which maybe why people are irritated. Not all erudite people can present their thoughts in a simple fashion. If that were a common skill amongst the erudite, there would not be a need for this post/conversation.

  4. Quote
    Hariraj (subscribed) said July 30, 2009, 12:25 am:

    Deja vu. I have had part of this conversation with a colleague. Reducing the concepts to first principle is an intellectual activity. Next comes the sharing activity.

    Individuals have varying ability to structure their thoughts for communication. This follows a sequence.
    I’ll list the sequences for the bottom to top levels of this ability using the same jargon used above:
    1. Eruditese =no translation=> [Spoken directly; least understood and possibly most irritating in Gen Y+ society]
    2. Eruditese =translate to=> English [these folks make an attempt to form coherent statement in the spoken language and are generally accepted]
    3. Eruditese =translate to=> Elegant & simple thought sequence =translate to=> English [these folks are popularly understood, considered brilliant, very effective in social mechanisms etc]

  5. Quote

    Sukumar, thanks again.

    Hariraj, thank you for a well-thought out formulaic approach to this issue.

    However, my difficulty in both of your approaches is that while you are focussing on the language alone, erudition is also about the content of what is spoken. My argument is that the space for key, fundamental issues that affect our society is decreasing in large parts of our population. I hope that you get the distinction between the language of erudition and the content of erudition.

    It is the content of erudition mainly that turns people away from it because going to the root of problems is not to everybody’s liking. Erudition challenges the status quo and hence its better avoided is the commonplace thinking on the subject.

  6. Quote

    Good one Hari.

    Abdul, how do we it is the content they are objecting to vs. the delivery? has someone done a survey to know that people are objecting to erudition (as in the content of erudition) as opposed to presentation? Would love to see the research.

  7. Quote
    nayakar said July 30, 2009, 11:40 am:

    Being an Erudite person myself, I cant relate to what you guys are talking about… Eruditese?!! I always thought you guys talked Simplese 🙂

  8. Quote
    Surendar Chellappa (subscribed) said July 30, 2009, 12:08 pm:

    Abdul – erudite post 🙂

    Yu’ve stated in your comments…”My argument is that the space for key, fundamental issues that affect our society is decreasing in large parts of our population”

    I dont think the space has reduced at all – only, a lot more people are debating and discussing things that used to be confined to silent corridors. Obviously, because of the spread, the average depth of the conversation might have gone down…however, fundamental issues that affect our society is best discussed by the affected community..the intellectual elite conferring on those subjects seems to have created the problem than helped solve it?

    Without sounding crude, I do think if you walk into high quality universities and research institutions today, you will find erudition in abundance. /* later part of comment edited out by moderator per the commenter’s request */

  9. Quote

    Cheers Sukumar for a thoughtful question. If you value social experience and ethnogaphy as valid indicators of attitudes, then perhaps tomes can be written on the subject. If you are seeking quantitative large-scale surveys then I am afraid that we will have to wait for one.

  10. Quote

    Thanks Nayakar. Between eruditese and simplese, there’s “gobble-de-gook-eese” – you forgot that. 🙂

  11. Quote

    Thanks Surendar. Hilarious as always. 🙂

    I would be the first to be thrilled if the space for talking about key fundamental issues that affect our lives has increased. I am glad that you think lot more people are debating and discussing things.

    My concern is for patience, tolerance and respect for erudition and if those of us hitherto commenting on this post are in agreement that it has gone up, as I said, I am the happier for it.

  12. Quote

    I agree with Surendar. I think the space to discuss “Erudite stuff” has actually increased with the advent of the Internet and Social Media.

    Abdul, if you can point to some ethnography (qualitative is fine) studies that point to this phenomenon, that would help.

  13. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar. I could start with Stanley Fish’s observation at the beginning of this post.

    While at this point I would not cite any references, may I say that the social experience of the researcher is one source of ethnography that we all work with before it becomes translated as published research. I do not think it is unusual for some of us to have experienced being shunted out of conversations the moment it becomes erudite or even resorts to first principles or moves to certain topics.

    You have referred to change management in our conversation once before. There are some things that people talk about that propel change and several that they don’t and sometimes not talk at all if it comes in an erudite form.

    You are indeed correct that social networking has enabled greater erudite conversations in a virtual space. This is a positive development. As a knowledge specialist yourself, the challenge before us is how much of this information network build-up helps in social development and betters lives.

    One first step to building a better society to borrow Plato’s allegory is the people in the cave who never move out of it and only see the shadows/darkness and mistake it for the reality – such people need to see light! Knowledge is a candle that lights the darkness and points the way ahead. Perhaps, we need to make people to reflect on ‘how’ to know what we need to know.

  14. Quote
    nayakar said July 30, 2009, 6:48 pm:

    Abdul, You stil arent erudite enuff to know what SAST stands for 🙂

  15. Quote
    Hariraj (subscribed) said July 30, 2009, 9:14 pm:

    Great discussion so far. Thanks to you Abdul.
    More opinions:
    1. Space for erudite content has increased. [Sukumar and Surendar provides the reasoning above.]
    2. Patience, tolerance and respect – It is probable that the perception is that of a decline here. To me, its misleading because the Reach/Response is factor that skews this perception from reality. For example, a concept/idea (say topic of abortion during the run to US Presidential election) being discussed now reaches 100X (or more) the audience that it used to reach earlier thanks to the technology. And EVERYONE’s response is heard, thanks to the social media. So there would be radical (illogical, intolerant, ) voices (pro or anti) heard aloud in more numbers (but actually in lower percentages) that what it used to be. And bad news tend to drive human perception.

  16. Quote

    Abdul – Was erudition useful at any point of time in the past? Was the world ever a paradise for scholars? I wonder.

    I’m a regular geek, I read, experiment & I try to understand the world around me. I’m happy for the few – precious few – people that share my interests.

    Some people have an innate flair for Cooking, some for Rock Climbing, some for DJ-ing – and some for Scholarship. I’ve always found it interesting how much people know – when you tap into this interest area. Some people gain wisdom with age, experience and maturity – I particularly love that variety.

    Many people don’t want to think too much about intellectual stuff. They may sincerely want a change in their country’s political leadership, but they don’t want to read about political systems or ponder over the definition of a leader.

  17. Quote

    Excellent Post Abdul. I think erudition is our way of nurture our kids, our ancestors gained wisdom and knowledge based on extreme erudition speechs. Most of it happened in temple and worship places. You are right that now how many of us going to temple and spending time to listen “upathesam”. I want to give a real time experience, the way “erudition” occurred in a home where i visited during one of my vacation, family members all are watching TV. Kids were frequently asked questions like “who is this actor” “how many movies he acted so far” “where are they dancing” kids were disturbed frequently and suddenly a big intellectual talk delivered by a elder family member. So i think for this generation we have to in sync with them and deliver our intellectual briefly and then come back to complete it.

  18. Quote

    Thanks again Hariraj. I am so glad that you noticed that bit about patience, tolerance and respect and have responded to it from your experience.

    Increasingly, the discourse of politics in the public sphere has moved to talking of an ‘inclusive society.’ An important meaning in this is that those sections hitherto considered as at the “margins” would be included in the ‘core’ or as is the common parlance ‘mainstream’ (the latter term not without its problems).

    My contention is that the moment erudite conversation moves towards such ideas of inclusiveness, the speaker is not so politely shunted out of the conversation. Since erudition can grapple with issues at the level of fundamental complexity, it is not tolerated.

  19. Quote

    Priya, Thank you. Erudition in the past? In the presence of an ‘erudite’ technology audience in this blog, I humbly submit some names that come to my mind: Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

    Several themes that you have mentioned fall within the domain of individual choice. However, there remains one inescapable fact, is there not, either as individuals or as families we live as constituent members of society and in that capacity there is no other way but having to take positions and get to know the larger unit that they are part of. Ignorance is what all of us struggle against and to see it in our immediate environs whereever we are can be a source of disturbance.

  20. Quote

    Thanks Subba, Sure. Religious discourses have been a source of erudition.

    Indeed, it is important for us to be in sync with generations when we share knowledge. However, I think a challenge that lies before us is adults themselves whose core values in part or full have become hardened by assumptions over time and values that may not be helpful to building a positive and healthy society.

  21. Quote
    Kumaran said July 31, 2009, 11:16 am:

    Good post Abdul.

    We actually a paradox also situation
    1. If you tell it in very simple terms . the reaction “so thats it!!if it is so simple why is it so important or valuable??”
    2. If you tell it complicated language. The reaction -“This stuff is not for me” or “Jargons so nothing to do with reality”

    It is a challenge to manage both while practicing ‘erudition” should i say…

  22. Quote
    Priya Raju said July 31, 2009, 9:17 pm:

    Abdul – You completely missed the point I made. I did *not* say that there was no erudition in the past.

    What you have given is a list of eminent erudite people from the past. But, that’s not the crux of your post. You made a point that erudition doesn’t seem to matter **now**, that most people are not interested in it, that there’s not much of an upside – other than intrinsic pleasure that one derives – for scholarship.

    What I’m saying is, erudite people never had it easy. They faced all this & probably much more. Einstein had to fight an uphill battle to get even a leaf-node level job. Charles Darwin had to struggle to get recognition.

    In the earlier epochs, people probably found a blacksmith more useful than a poet & a cook more useful than a philosopher. If anything, things will be somewhat better now.

    If you want, I can give you a list of erudite people from the present times. Stephen Hawking. Richard Dawkins. Arno Penzias. Mario Varga Llosa. Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  23. Quote

    Wonderful insight Priya. “That erudite people never had it easy and that it has always been this way.” Thanks. You are becomng the historian now. 🙂

    I agree with you regarding the above for the most part except that in the epoch of modernity and in an age of globalization there seems to be something different happenning. Would you say the impatience with erudition is greater? There are greater numbers seeking quick-fix solutions.

    One big difference is it not in the 20th century that was not quite there earlier: universal enfranchisement of all members of the population, the creation of the citizenry and the due accord of property and citizens rights to women too. Within these sweeping changes, erudition too and its kinds of interventions and the way they are perceived and treated undergo a change.

    The following is superb :): “In the earlier epochs, people probably found a blacksmith more useful than a poet & a cook more useful than a philosopher. If anything, things will be somewhat better now.”

  24. Quote

    Abdul – Thanks for your kind words.

    Is the impatience with erudition greater? I don’t know, I think we don’t have a frame of reference. We don’t know 1st hand how accepting people were of erudition earlier, in the ages past.

    But it seems to me that there is a difference in attitudes towards scholarship – from personal hand experience – in the past few decades. And I think it is related to the changes that happened in the 20th century, as you point out. And I think it is the access to education. And now in the 21st century, access to information.

    People confuse erudition – which is deep thinking, based on awareness – with literacy, education & information.

    Earlier, there were very few people that were educated. Plus, there wasn’t so much to know. Thanks to the internet, TV etc, now almost anyone has data, information of some kind. So, the sheen – the prestige – has come off erudition. Is this what you mean?

    Erudition though isn’t lack of ignorance. Stephen Hawking may know his physics, but Kishori Amonkar may rue his ignorance on Music. (Assuming Hawking doesn’t have prodigious talent in music like Amonkar).

  25. Quote

    Priya, thank you very much. These are rich insights: Frame of reference, access to education and access to information. How these sit together in understanding the questions under discussion would take some time to ponder over.

    Thats another gem of an expression: ‘the sheen having come off erudition !’ I think as a society we continue to venerate erudite people more as a ceremonial gesture rather than thinking what their message was all about.

    I have in mind a simple question. we have to hand a powerful medium in the form of the television.
    One of the recurrent questions that is asked by media analysts is if we set apart non-cinema (including music and songs) based proportion of the content of television programming, what we have left is open for all to witness in terms of the quality, substance and usefulness of the remaining programmes. And the last word there perhaps is that no one really cares for knowledge and erudition.

    And the argument that a programming executive would offer in defense is that any indication of erudition in my programmes might ‘sedate’ the audience. We offer what the janata wants and at best, if its not entertainment, its infotainment.

    On the Hawking – Amonkar bit 🙂

  26. Quote
    nayakar said August 2, 2009, 12:16 am:

    Erudite means ‘Learned’ OR ‘Having or showing great academic knowledge’. I wouldnt cal Einstein or Darwin erudite.. Perhaps a Dr. Radhakrishnan, or a Dr. T R Anatharaman perhaps are Erudite…

    If we take this as the definition of erudite, the world today, perhaps, is in too much of a hurry to stop and recognize/admire/dig erudites and their erudition.

  27. Quote

    Thanks Nayakar. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was indeed a very erudite man and a great one at that.

  28. Quote
    pk.karthik said August 3, 2009, 1:21 pm:

    Excellant post Abdul …I guess ur post is an erudited post on erudition. 🙂 .

    But I have question .Shoudnt erudiation go hand in hand with simplification for the erudited soul to be seen has a teacher?

    I agree that Einstein and Darwin where erudited but it took hell a lot of time for their philosophies to gain ground as each system was complex and took a lot of time for people to understand and accept it.
    This was in 1904 and 1890 respectively.But now Darwin’s theory is seen as matter of fact ( Infact we even have Dasavaathar Interpretation for the same: as people now are able to understand it better).Same holds good for Einstein too as we are able to experience LASER and other effects of relativity and Photo electric effect.

    If I can quote an example :Buddha’s enlightenment I guess is an example of erudtion but he kept his philosophy simple that he was able to reach out people.We can extend that example to Gandhi as well With respect to Gandhi he lived his erudition ,so people could actuallly see it and follow it( I would call it live Test Match ).So with the Television and the Internet we have 2 wonderful mediums which can actaully spread the erudition effectivly.

    If it is not kept simple then it is subject to numerous representations and misrepresentations..We can see hundreds of representations of the Gita and Vedas some extreme and some moderate.

    About the sheen coming of erudtion,I totally agree as we seem to have forgotten that “Still waters run deep” ..So we keep running which has left us hardly any time to erudite …

  29. Quote

    Thank you very much Karthik for your kind words.

    Sure, erudition means deep thinking expressed simply or what we mentioned earlier as down to ‘first principles.’ Buddha and Gandhi are great and profound examples.

    I mentioned Einstien, Darwin and Freud as 3 important geniuses because their contributions changed the way we looked at truth or our understanding of it.

  30. Quote

    I have been thinking about this some more. I am as interested in anthropology as you are. I wrote this post a while ago

    If you go through it, you will see, that attention is the scarcest commodity now due to the explosion of information media.

    If you extend that a bit, we can easily conclude that, if erudite stuff is not presented in an attention-grabbing manner, it won’t have the impact. I think we talked about this above, as to how the erudite need to use simpler language etc.

    On the whole, you may be seeing this lack of attention as a brush against erudition. But it runs much deeper against all things lengthy and perhaps dry & boring.

    Hope that helps.

  31. Quote
    pk.karthik said August 3, 2009, 9:03 pm:

    @ Sukumar,

    I totally agree to you on “Attention grabbing”.One of faculties used to emphaise on fact that any speech is won or lost in the first line..he used to call it an arresting opening.

    The best examples i can think of is “I have a dream ” and “Brothers and sisters of America”

  32. Quote

    Mr. Erudite on eruditism….

    I do not believe that erudite means giving useless info. Erudite need not be preachy….it is a command over a topic combined with a discerning attitude. The nature of erudite today is seen as captivating faster, and briefly.

    I do not agree that “innocuous cartoon and animation channels” are harmless. They encourage sedentary lifestyles, poor attention spans and an acceptance of violence to solve all problems.

    Not all erudites are modest, several love wearing their knowledge on their sleeves, and quoting at the drop of a hat! The chat shows on TV are acase in point. But even there, the truly erudite ones are calm, poised and make the one punching statement that lingers on with us…

  33. Quote

    Thanks Revathi. You have yourself made a neat distinction between different sorts of erudite people. At the outset, we all realize that folk who wear this on their sleeve take things nowhere, except causing the discussion to diagress.

    The moot point is what contribution one can make to a discussion and how that benefits the progression of understanding/knowledge. This unlocks complexity and helps us understand different shades involved in human existence.

    My post raised the question of whether the generations of the day have become impatient with this exercise. TV chat shows with some exceptions are by and large into sound bytes, so much for that !

    Yes Ma ‘am, I agree with you the flip side of cartoon and animation channels.

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