Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Ignorance

“Tuesday Teaching Topic,” or TTT, is a regular series featuring some question or discussion topic related to teaching, often at the meta level. If you have suggestions for a TTT or would like to write one yourself, please write to Kamran Swanson at kamranswanson@gmail.com, or bswanson1@ccc.edu. 

“The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.” (a paraphrase of an analogy by Michael Smithson, social scientist at Australian National University) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html?_r=2

Many of us, and certainly many of our students, believe we are in the business of expanding knowledge in its various forms: facts, data, skills, perspectives, analysis, argument, etc. But how often do we talk about dealing with ignorance?

“You’re ignorant” is a common insult nowadays. I hear students every so often describe other people as ignorant in a demeaning way. I once went on a date where the woman proudly proclaimed she was not ignorant, and hated people who were. “But we’re all ignorant about most things,” I said. “What am I possibly ignorant about?” she replied. I then moved the conversation to a number of topics on which she was totally ignorant: not just stuff that I know about, but mostly stuff I don’t know about. She became irritated, and I learned that I know very little about how to behave on a date.

Ignorance is a dirty word. But should it be? Is it our responsibility to elevate the our concept of ignorance, not as an evil, but rather as a natural and necessary yang to knowledge’s yin?

“Philosophy” is the ancient Greek word that literally means “the love of wisdom.” It was in usage for awhile before Plato and Socrates popularized the word and gave the first hefty descriptions of what the word means. “Wisdom is that sort of knowledge that is the knowledge of what we know and what we do not know.” Philosophers, I like to think, do not make it their business to introduce new knowledge, but rather to re-evaluate that which we thought was knowledge, so that our apparent knowledge can be replaced by more secure knowledge, or at least prevent rotten knowledge from clogging up a clean and productive inquiry of the world.

But while philosophy tackles this acknowledgement of our ignorance quite explicitly, every discipline has been enhanced by acknowledging its limits.

The question I’m interested in is how often our students engage in a serious discussion of ignorance. We talk about it in my philosophy classes, and when I do, almost every student is baffled by my claim that we need to acknowledge our own ignorance before we can grow our knowledge. Students give me disgusted faces, and I often hear the proclamation, “I’m not ignorant.”

As the NYTimes article I linked to described, there is a new and growing academic discipline called “agnotology,” or the formal study of not knowing. Perhaps, like “writing across the curriculum,” we should start thinking about “agnotology” across the curriculum. Many of us perhaps believe that the lesson is implicit within our teaching, but I often suspect that it is not: a very conscious, explicit, and direct exposure of our own ignorance may be precisely what our students need.

This week’s TTT question: how do you teach ignorance?

One thought on “Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Ignorance

  1. Great post!
    Thing 1″
    “Ignorance is a dirty word. But should it be? Is it our responsibility to elevate the our concept of ignorance, not as an evil, but rather as a natural and necessary yang to knowledge’s yin?”

    Ignorance is only a dirty word because of the context in which it is frequently used, much like many other words that have come to mean something other than what they “literally” mean, and “literally” has been so “misused” that it too now has an officially different meaning:
    in a literal manner or sense; exactly.
    “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle”
    synonyms: exactly, precisely, actually, really, truly; More
    used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.
    “I have received literally thousands of letters”

    I think acknowledging and elevating our concept of ignorance is absolutely necessary, but it’s the approach in doing so that must be done carefully when discussing with others, as the term has become so offensive in most contexts.

    Thing 2:
    “She became irritated, and I learned that I know very little about how to behave on a date.”
    It was probably never going to work out because if she couldn’t get used to this, how was she going to get used to you spitting on her when you quoted Plato? It wasn’t meant to be. Carry on as you are!

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