A Little Knowledge is Dangerous; A Lot of Knowledge is Great!

I grew up in NYC and went to college there, entering in 1969 at age 17 in the midst of what was then nearly unprecedented social and political turmoil. I enrolled in a sociology class because I needed some social science courses and that one happened to be open. As it turned out, that course changed me and the way I approached the world. A great teacher can do that (Thank you, Dr Roberta Satow!) and I came close to majoring in sociology, but ended up choosing physics instead.

I did take Russian though. I wanted to understand the language and culture of our great “enemy.” My Russian classes were tiny–between two and six students. There were many eye-openers for me in those classes, including how the US government viewed students studying Russian—which was as a cross between suspect and possibly useful in the future. On the whole, it was a great experience in terms of humanizing the 200,000,000 people of the USSR . It’s hard to think of a whole nation in black-and-white terms when you’ve learned something about them.

In my first Russian class, I met a young man who was a Crimean Tatar, an ethnic group that was the object of Stalin’s ire in 1944. The Tatars were banished wholesale from Crimea—every single person—and exiled to remote regions of the Soviet Union. Well, not all. Some were killed in the process. This young man, as you might imagine, was no fan of the USSR. His family had ultimately left the place and he had lived in Turkey and Germany before coming to the US. I went out with him for a year or so. He was Muslim and taught me a bit about his faith. I learned about a religion that was complex and nuanced and that almost no one else in my world knew a thing about. My own knowledge to that time had been almost nothing, limited to reading–okay, scanning– the volume on Islam in the set of World’s Great Religions books my father had given me when I was 11.

Maybe that’s why I found myself, seven years later, working my behind off on a big paper that was to form my entire grade in a course I was taking. By then, I was a graduate student in astronomy. My advisor had been kind enough to give me permission to take a Sociology of Science grad course. I chose as my topic science in the Islamic world during the European Dark Ages. Science was booming then, unlike in Europe, and I wanted to examine the rise of the various kinds of Islam and how they interacted with the growth of science. Mathematical and scientific innovations in that Muslim Golden Age were astounding. Look it up if you like. We have the Internet now.

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who lived from roughly 780-850. His work formed the basis of algebra and trigonometry. In fact, his name—al-Khwarizmi—is the origin of the word algorithm.

But when I tried to do the research then, I found the Columbia University Library was woefully low in resources on the subject. Many of the books I needed were in Arabic only. It was shocking that this great modern university didn’t have nearly the kind of depth and breadth of information you would expect about one of most prolific math and science periods the world had known. At least not in a form accessible to any but those fluent in Arabic. That was the first time I recognized it wasn’t just me or my circle of friends who had a large blind spot. I thought that would change quickly, but it didn’t. Even today, we find ourselves laboring under wholesale misconceptions about Muslim people that grow out of a void in our understanding.

If you’re expecting some big insight here, I’m afraid you won’t find it. Just my observation that the sooner we start educating our children–and ourselves–about the many faces of Islam, the better. And yet parents protest when schools work to help their kids understand rather than stereotype. I’m not sure what they’re so afraid of. It’s only a little knowledge that’s a dangerous thing. Enough knowledge is power. In this case, the power to see people for who they are instead of pushing them all away as the “the enemy.”

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