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My particular line of country has always been generalization and synthesis. I dislike isolated events and disconnected details. I hate statements, views, prejudices, and beliefs that jump at you out of midair. I like my world as coherent and consistent as possible. That is why I have spent a few score thousand hours making outlines of history, short histories of the world, general accounts of the science of life, attempts to bring economic, financial, and social life into one conspectus, and to estimate the consequences of this or that set of causes upon the future of mankind.

In the course of these experiments I have devoted a certain amount of anxious thought to the conspicuous ineffectiveness of modern knowledge. And I think that it is mainly in the troubled years since 1914 that the world of cultivated people has become conscious of this ineffectiveness. Before that time, the world was living in a state of confidence, of established values, of assured security which is already becoming now almost incredible. Most of us carried on into the Great War and even right through it under the inertia of received notions. We felt that the sort of history we were used to was ongoing, and we hardly realized that the Great War was a new thing, not like the old wars, or that the old traditions were disastrously obsolete and could lead only to a tangle of evil consequences. But few can fail, anymore, to appreciate the stupendous ignorance, the short views, the total shallowness of mind that has characterized society. We talk about the dignity of history, but there has been no dignity in the history of human endeavor. It would be pure comedy if it were not so often tragic, so frequently dismal, generally dishonorable, and occasionally quite horrible.

I want to suggest that something which I shall call World Encyclopedia is the means whereby we can solve that puzzle and bring all the scrambled mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding, a schema for the reorientation of education throughout the world. As it stands, we are so accustomed to the existing universities, the galaxies of authorities, the research organizations; they have so molded and trained us from our earliest years to respect and believe in them that it is with a feeling of alma-matricidal impiety that one explores their merits and questions whether they were not now altogether an extraordinarily loose, weak, and outmoded miscellany. Yet I do not see how we can admit this and not go on to something like an indictment of the whole great world of academic erudition, from China to Peru—an indictment for inadequacy and incoordination, if not for actual negligence.

Now consider the World Encyclopedia from the point of view of the ordinary educated citizen—and I suppose in a really modernized state the ordinary citizen will be an educated one. From his perspective the World Encyclopedia would be a row of volumes in his own home, at a convenient public library, or at any school or college, and in it he would without any great toil or difficulty find in clear language, and kept up-to-date, the ruling concepts of our social order, the outlines and main particulars in all fields of knowledge, an exact and reasonably detailed picture of our universe: a general history of the world.

Such an encyclopedia would play the role of an undogmatic bible for our world culture. It would do just what our scattered and disoriented intellectual organizations fall short of: it would hold the world together mentally. And it would spread like a nervous network, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression into a conscious unit with a sense of its own dignity, informing without pressure, stimulating without propaganda, directing without tyranny. It could be developed wherever conditions were favorable; it could bide its time in regions of exceptional violence, grow vigorous again with every return to liberalism and reason. It would be not a miscellany but a concentration, a clarification and a synthesis.

From “The Idea of a World Encyclopedia,” which appeared in the April 1937 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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April 1937

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