Knowing Your Stuff

16 03 2012

Near Eastern scholar Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) related a story in his book Forgotten Scripts which illustrates the importance of really knowing your particular vocation, without recourse to helps.

Gordon himself was something of a prodigy.  He began reading Hebrew—he was Jewish—at age five.  He went on to study and learn over twenty languages, ancient and modern.

In college, he studied under revered philologist, Rabbi Max Margolis.  He had this to say about his apprenticeship under Margolis:

“My most effective teacher was a martinet—Max Margolis.  He was a thorough craftsman and a master of his subject.  He was a biblical philologian, working on the Septuagint.  His knowledge of the Old Testament text was phenomenal.  He expected all his students to recognize any oral quotation from Scripture and identify it by book and chapter.  If he fired a three- or four-word Hebrew quotation at a student and the student failed to identify it, he promptly told the student, “Go to hell!” and went around the room telling each student that failed to recognize the source the same thing, sometimes varying it with “There is room for you, too.”

I began to study with Margolis when I was only eighteen and was more inclined to emulate his erudition than to resent his abusive language.  After being reviled before the class a number of times for not spotting his Hebrew citations, I asked him after class one day how I might improve my familiarity with the Hebrew text.  He told me to read as much of the Hebrew Bible as I could make time for each day, starting with Genesis 1:1 and reading straight through to the end of the Old Testament.  I did this and noticed how many more citations I was progressively able to locate in class.

Cyrus Gordon in 1983

When I finished the final chapter of Chronicles [last book in the Hebrew Bible], I reported to Professor Margolis to tell him the good news.  He replied with a faint smile, “Now begin over again.”  I never forgot the moral; mastery comes only through familiarity with the subject matter.  He scorned the kind of scholarship that depends on dictionaries, concordances, and other reference books.  There is a place for such books (and his library contained them), but a master has to have the basic knowledge of his field in his head [emphasis added].  He used to say, “When you buy a loaf of bread in the grocery store, you do not tell the clerk that you have money in the bank; you have got to lay a coin on the counter.  In the same way, no scholar should think that he does not have to know his basic material by heart because he can look it up in concordances and indices.  Money in the bank does not take the place of ready cash in the pocket.”

Points to ponder:

  • In your field, do you have the basics in your head or do you have to consult reference materials?
  • What kinds of practices can you implement in your discipline to help you master the craft?
  • Are you willing to endure tough teachers and mentors to get the benefit of a superior apprenticeship?

Image Credit




4 responses

16 03 2012
LaDona's Music Studio

Every time I think I have everything in my head in my profession, I stumble upon something that makes me realize I still have a long way to go.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to admit you have to look something up – it shows an attitude of willing to admit you can’t know everything – but obviously there’s no excuse for ever stopping the learning process.
Great post. Thanks.

17 03 2012
Christian Fahey

I feel the same way, LaDona. I always consult reference materials (“measure twice;cut once”) but there’s something about knowing your craft (the basics anyway) cold. Thanks for stopping by!

17 03 2012
David Kanigan

Great post Christian.

“a master has to have the basic knowledge of his field in his head”

17 03 2012
Christian Fahey

Thanks David. I love languages and first found this story back in the late ’80’s and it has always stuck with me. Thanks for reading!

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