Mr. Know-it-All

Main reading room; US Library of Congress

Dear Daughters,

When your mother and I first met, she thought I was a bit of a know-it-all. Based on all of the lectures I’ve given you over the years–not to mention the fact that I write a blog called “Truths and Wonders”–you might be inclined to agree with that characterization.

But in fact, I haven’t even attempted to be a know-it-all in almost two decades. Not since a chance encounter outside a library with perhaps the smartest person I’ve ever known: Dr. Peter Caws.

Dr. Caws was one of my graduate school advisors, as well as the University Professor of Philosophy at GWU, where I studied cultural theory, Shakespeare, and writing. Because I was interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the stuff I was studying, Dr. Caws was kind enough to do a directed reading in philosophy with me. Basically, this was a “class” for which I read a major work from the history of philosophy each week, wrote a brief paper on it, and met one-on-one with him to discuss what I had written.

Even at the time, I realized what an extraordinary learning opportunity this was. Dr. Caws had earned a degree in physics in London (he was born in the U.K.) before getting his PhD in Philosophy at Yale. Over the next four decades, he had written 10 books and dozens of scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as the philosophy of science, structuralism in the humanities and social sciences, the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, and everyday ethics, all while lecturing at a series of top-notch universities. To describe him as “well-read” would be a bit like describing Lebron James as “coordinated.”

Anyway, I ran into Dr. Caws on the street outside GWU’s Gelman Library one day, in the early spring of 1998. It had been a few months since I’d completed the directed reading with him, and I had recently started working part time as a researcher at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.

When Dr. Caws spotted me coming out of the Gelman, he smiled and we exchanged pleasantries.

“How’s your semester going?” he asked.

“Pretty well,” I said. “I’ve been working part time at the Folger, doing research for the Arden Shakespeare’s new electronic edition.”

“That’s right,” he said. “You told me about that. How fascinating. How do you like the Folger?”

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I find it a little intimidating. I mean, it’s a library with 250,000 volumes, all on the topic I’m supposed to be an expert on. When am I going to find time to read that many books?”

Dr. Caws let out a wry British chuckle and nodded. “That’s really the situation we’re all in, isn’t it?” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “Right now, we’re standing outside a library that contains something like 2 million volumes–seven stories of stacks of books, arranged on thousands of shelves. I’ve spent the last 50 years reading, and I’ve only read a few shelves’ worth. You’re thirty years behind me, so you’ve read even fewer. But neither of us is going to make it to the end of a single floor, much less the rest of the library. And never mind all of the other libraries out there–like the Folger, for you–or all the knowledge that isn’t contained in books.”

I nodded. “I guess that’s true,” I said.

“Compared to all there is to know,” he continued, “my 50 years of reading don’t amount to much–though I hope they still count for something.”

“Of course they do,” I said. “You’ve taught me a ton. And I’m just one of your students.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “And if I’m not mistaken, there’s your answer.”

“My answer?” I asked.

“To feeling intimidated,” he said.

“Just do your best to know your part of the library–and be willing to share what you know when someone asks. If that’s not enough, then we’re all in trouble.”

I smiled. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

Then we shook hands and said our farewells. He went his way, into the Gelman, while I went my way, into the street.

I’ve been working on my part of the library ever since–and trying to share what I learn. I still think that’s the best we can do when it comes to knowledge. That, and give each other at least a few chances–the way your mother did with the younger me, who was really just trying to impress her.



2 thoughts on “Mr. Know-it-All

  1. Hi Steve,
    My wife sent a link to this post to my children with the subject line “heartwarming.” I guess I agree with that – thanks!

    I like your blog. You have a knack for putting good counsel in small spaces.



    1. Hello Peter!

      So nice to hear from you. I’m thrilled that this little piece found its way to you and your family. I’m also glad, of course, to hear you like my blog–even if it’s slightly intimidating to imagine you reading it, the way you once read my papers, with a sort of half-confused look on your face (the fault of the writer, not the reader, of course!). Anyway, “good counsel in small spaces” is pretty much exactly what I’m trying to provide, so I’ll count that as a passing grade!

      I hope you’re doing well. I value the time I spent studying with you immensely. I still find myself drawing on lessons that I learned from and/or associate with you–and not just the one about not being able to read the library. I’m grateful for them all, and for the efforts you made not just as a thinker but as a teacher. I wish you the very best.



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