I sometimes wonder if there is a finite amount of knowledge that human communities can hold on to — a certain point that is reached, and one thing must be forgotten for another. I hope that this is not the case, but a look at the state of knowledge in modern life makes one consider the possibility. We learn something new about the nature of subatomic particles, and then we forget the most basic understanding of the food we put into our bodies.

This problem comes in part because we are increasingly becoming specialists. We know a few things really well, but we don’t know much about a great many things. This is a fairly new reality for us as a species. Being generalists is what got us where we are. Eating a large variety of food (both plant and animal), inhabiting every sort of landscape, seeking knowledge of every kind — that is the nature of the human animal.  But now that generalist stance toward the world is being lost in favor of the specific. 

Rural knowledge is generalist knowledge. It encompasses everything from how to gut a fish to how to balance the farm books. And while there is a worse loss of knowledge in so-called developing countries as traditional cultures are co-opted, the loss of rural knowledge is the most pervasive ignorance in the West. 

Projects like the Foxfire Fund have done a remarkable job of recording a great deal of rural know-how. But there is also a kind of knowledge that can only be passed on through experience and apprenticeship. The philosopher and physicist Michael Polanyi called this sort of knowledge “tacit knowledge.”    

Tacit knowledge is the sort of thing that cannot be explained, but is learned only through practice. It is silent and yet evident to someone learning the practice. Anyone who has played a sport or a musical instrument should understand this concept. The reason it is hard to learn to play baseball from a book is the lack of tacit knowledge passed along through its pages. 

We cannot all go and learn from the elders of rural communities in order to preserve this knowledge. But for those who have children, I recommend a return to an old American tradition — sending kids to visit farming relatives during the summer. It was once common for urban kids to be put on a train to go and work on the farms of their rural relatives. For many kids, it was a much-anticipated time. I think we should return to this practice. It would help extend the life of rural knowledge and eventually help us realize how much we’re missing in our education. 

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article was originally posted on Plenty on August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

Why we are losing what we cannot teach
Knowledge that can only be learned through experience is being forgotten as modern life pushes people away from generalized learning.