Modern-day meaning in four sons

I usually think about “four sons” only at the springtime Seder table. But now it’s Rosh Hashanah, not Passover, that’s fast approaching, and so many horrifying things going on in so many places are being perpetrated by young men — each of them someone’s son. So I find myself remembering another four young men, the ones my wise father often referred to in some sort of olden-times parable. This has helped me to answer questions of how we might judge certain folks among us when judgment is necessary: the people we meet who are asking for our attention, our help, our money, our votes. Maybe this will help you, too. (But do remember: In these gender-neutral days of full inclusion, it’s not only possible and allowable, but most likely actually very smart, to turn the masculine pronouns to feminine ones as applicable…)

  1. He who knows naught, but knows not that he knows naught — he is a fool. Shun him.
  2. He who knows naught, but knows that he knows naught — he is a child. Teach him.
  3. He who knows, but knows not that he knows — he is asleep. Wake him.
  4. He who knows, and knows that he knows — he is wise. Follow him.
    Here’s the inevitable English language lesson: “Naught” is still alive and well, although mightily under-used: a very old word that means “nothing,” any something of no value or importance. It survives in the word most often applied to youngsters who don’t yet know much about behavior: “naughty.” The big picture: When folks move from childhood into adulthood, they should know something. And in many cases, they should know better than to act on what they are thinking.
    The word itself is related to “aught,” which, in theory, is naught’s opposite, meaning “anything.” But sometimes it’s closer to naught than to itself. In Old English, if one person said to another, “Do you know aught about (something),” it was often an insult, a back-door way of saying “Don’t you know anything at all about…?”
    Notice the gradations. A person who doesn’t even know enough to know that he knows nothing may not respond at all to attempts at teaching. But how can we identify someone who is one of the ones who knows nothing, but is worth educating? Truth told, the only way is to try to teach everyone, which is the model that our public schools have long been based on. And reality will out soon enough…
    Case in point: When I was doing my student teaching in a public high school so many moons ago, I was told on the first day to ignore “Herman,” who sat in the back row, unengaged in anything going on in the classroom, because he had apparently failed all the placement tests. But the truth was this: When his old test records were finally reviewed, it was discovered that Herman had received some booklets with missing pages. No wonder he had finished so quickly, and so poorly. And he was such a smart youngster: He had just settled, quite happily, for having everyone leave him alone, to read, think, expand his own mind. And since my particular class was Spanish, he had paid sufficient attention to come out top-of-the-heap when new language tests were given at the semester’s end!
    Somehow, it’s always seemed to me that there should be a fifth son added to that Pesach quartet: perhaps a latter-day relative of those referred to in the 135th Psalm, who have “mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” Because I think this is a person we’ve all encountered: someone locked in his or her own brain, the dangerous one who — no matter how much or how little s/he actually knows — thinks, and acts, like s/he knows everything!

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