The Art of Ignorance

I was raised to believe that knowledge was something you could have, like a pair of sneakers or blue jeans. Do you understand physics? Sure. I keep that knowledge in the hallway closet, third shelf from the bottom. Particle physics? Nope, only own the lighter wash. You learned things about history, science, philosophy and life and then you stored the little bits of information like canning vegetables for the winter.

But the more experience I gain, the wiser I grow, it seems the less I actually know. Sometime is wrong with this picture.

Let me clarify. Something is wrong with the first picture.

Having the answers always seemed to be a good thing. Heck, no teacher gave you points for writing, “I don’t know,” on a test. And sure, knowing things is good, but isn’t the ability to learn far more valuable? Something is missing from this picture and it is the role of ignorance. In traditional schooling, teachers are omnipotent, they are always right, they have all the answers, and the students are always ignorant– implied to be a bad thing.

I was gifted with unusually insightful and thoughtful teachers, but from what I hear this is not the norm. Also I use the term “teacher” loosely. Could be parents, coaches, actual teachers etc.

But how do we cope with this idea that not knowing is a bad thing? We try to know everything– an obviously impossible feat, doomed to end in failure. Or, more likely, we insist that we already do know everything. You can sound the death knell now. Because if we know everything, how could we ever possibly learn?

The opportunity to learn must be preceded by ignorance.

We have to admit that we don’t know, that we don’t have the answers, and that we can’t just look it up in a textbook, on our iPhones or on Cramster.

After all, what are the experts at the cutting edge of their fields really working on? The things we don’t yet know. What is the term “cutting edge” even referring to? The edge of our knowledge.

As Schrodenger puts it: “In an honest search for knowledge, you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period of time.”

Even when we do learn more, it’s not the case that we are reaching some complete and well-defined understanding of the world and how we operate in it. Because the more you see, the more you see and the more questions arise– the entire point of learning. We learn not to just gain some material fact and store it in the hallway closet, but to be able to frame the question and subsequently, take the next step.

“Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
-James Clerk Maxwell


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