The Importance of Ignorance

Ignorance is one of those words that has a bad reputation. If someone is called Ignorant it means stupid, or something similar. And it can be used to insult people. It is a primed word and has what we call ‘baggage’.

But as I have become older I have had that dizzy, exciting and surprising experience of realising that I am amazingly ignorant about an almost infinitive number of things in this world. The realisation that the more I know the less I know I know might be considered a small philosophical triumph but it is also very humbling.

Of course we all are in this position. A simple hour spent on the internet will show us the limits of our knowledge. So in this way we are not that much further down the road as adults than we are as children.

Most of what I have learned in my life that might be described as useful, I learned as an adult.  That’s my story and more of that in this book, but I realised that when I learned as an adult is was driven by a duality of ignorance and curiosity. To find out what I did not know or understand. What I was ignorant about. Whether that was something practical, for example, fixing my car, or something theoretical that I may never put into physical application.

It’s the same with children. They don’t have knowledge but they can acquire it.  But the ongoing activation of learning, where we move from not knowing to knowing, needs ignorance and curiosity.

Without curiosity there is no energy and movement to learn. And without ignorance, i.e the state of not knowing curiosity cannot act and will not be present.

Now, how many times have I been asked by my kids, “What’s that Daddy?”, “How does this work Dad?” endlessly and in endless forms. Countless. It is not hard to realise that children arrive with almost unlimited amounts of not knowing and curiosity.

My own experience and subsequent observation of the education process is that it places too much emphasis on ignorance and not on natural curiosity.

I think we have traditionally been too focussed on asking what children know. Rather we might think about asking them what they don’t you know, what they would like to know? The first approach, i.e ‘what do you know’ is usually driven by the adults need to find the knowledge gap so that they can then proceed to direct or tell the child what they need to learn next.

This is because adult assume their primary role is to check knowledge and then make decisions about how it should learned irrespective of whether the child wants to learn it or is curious about it in the first place!

So think bored kids in classrooms totally uninterested in the teacher’s topic. The main problem is that the teacher is imposing the topic.

The only time that an adult ought to be able to impose a piece of knowledge onto a child is when it involves safety, so knowledge about physical danger. “Razor blades are very sharp and can cut you”. That’s a good idea to teach a child. About physical safety.

Another might be, “If person A hits or abuses you in some way you need to know and do……”  Beyond these types of adult responsibilities there should be no imposition of knowledge based on ignorance.

What I try to do, (okay confession time, I really struggle to do this still…) is to get as ignorant as I can so as to be able to get closer to my kids in curiosity. It is a challenge to put my own (limited I hasten to add) knowledge aside so I can more clearly be alongside the kids. For a part of me wants to tell them everything I know! What I have realised is that they almost instantly forget something if I have imposed it on them rather than responded to their curiosity.

Another way to look at this is to remember how, when I was younger I had some hobbies I was intently interested in. One of them was fishing. I read fishing books, went fishing, bought and played around for hours with fishing tackle, watched TV programmes on fishing and so on.

What I quickly found out was that people who had no curiosity about fishing were entirely disinterested in it. What a shock. How could they not too find it intensely interesting? But they didn’t. And more that that they did not consider their fishing ignorance a problem!

You might have had that feeling of having someone trying to get you excited and interested in something you just are not drawn to, interested in or curious about.

In the same way my children look at me in that kind of “Oh No, Dad’s about to go off on one of his intensely interesting topics (not)”. They don’t see that their lack of curiosity is a problem. Only I do!

So let’s finish with the voice in my head….Here is what it says (and by the way I have many many voices in my head, some of which make appearances in this book). It says…”It is all very well saying that it does not matter what your children are curious about and are not interested in but there are some things they have to be interested in for their own good! ”

So what has calmed this voice is another two observation over time. They are these.

Desires to learn are like the sea. They ebb and flow. Sometimes they are low and sometimes they are high. Some days the kids are vacuum cleaners of ideas and experiences and seem to have limitless curiosity. On other they seem to be becalmed in indifference. (Um, just noticed that I feel like that a bit too).

The second observation is that in the child’s world feelings and desires and curiosities are changeable and also ebb and flow around specific topics. Today fishing is boring. Tomorrow it is fascinating. So just because today something like writing seems utterly without interest so that can be completely turned on its head the next day.

It is like riding a bucking bronco sometimes!

This is an excerpt from “Unschooling the Kids”

  • lehla says:

    A beautiful bucking bronco indeed!

  • Fred says:

    Hi Ant, after reading your blog, I thought about “ignorance” and realised how ignorant I am! Even when you are a specialist in your field, you are basically still ignorant of all the possibilities in that field. For example, a professor of mathematics is very ignorant of his specialty. No one can ever get to the end of mathematics, for example, so, even the learned professor remains in ignorance land. Thank you for stimulating my mind into realising how ignorant I am! :o)

  • Do you think ignorance really is bliss then? x

    • Hi Lisa,
      The answer is yes and no, there is something really exciting perhaps even blissful about not knowing something that you can stretch towards and begin to know. However in other context not knowing somethings, especially things over which we have no influence or control (so think war on other side of world?) might be considered a blissful kind of ignorance. Clearly ignorance is probably not blissful when ignorance might lead to something that you don’t like happening. So ignorance = bliss = unpleasant thing happens due to ignorance = bummer, lots of love Ant

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