Cultivate Your Ignorance

Here is an excerpt from the remarks given last night at our Convocation ceremony, which I hope will  inspire our students to pay close attention to what they do not know in order to be effective learners  in the coming year.

It is with joy and anticipation that I welcome you all to our new academic year. Happy New Year! Happy New Year of school, of learning, of growth: of education. Education is a joyous business and it is a joyful time as we look to commence our lives together for a new year in this beautiful season.

I just want to share a few thoughts about the changing world of education as we embark upon our new year together. How many of you have laptops, ipads, iphones, or androids? How many of you have used them within the last 24 hours to look up something you wanted to know? Last weekend I listened to a fascinating interview with the chairman of Columbia University’s Biology department, Dr. Stuart Firestein, who has  written a book called “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” and I was startled to hear him declare that scientists don’t care about the facts. He said that it is dangerous to develop hypotheses before you have some knowledge, that the scientific method should be inverted, and then he said: “ I think that we have an overemphasis now on the idea of fact and data (in) science and I think it’s an over emphasis for two reasons. One is scientists themselves don’t care that much about the facts. I mean, we work hard to get data. We work hard to get facts but all know they’re the most unreliable part of the whole operation. The next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools is going to revise the facts. That’s what science does, it revises.” He is asserting facts are transient, changing, just the state of our current knowledge, but incomplete. Not that we can be careless about them; we have to understand our current level of knowledge and how it was achieved, what it tells us and what it doesn’t, but that knowledge of a given body of information is not science. Information is all around us and education is becoming less and less about learning facts than about what we can do with these facts, figuring out the problems with the information at hand, creating meaning from it, asking what the truth is here, and how it can help us act in better ways.  The world today knows that knowledge is dynamic and evolving, and is more aware of what is shared, of the collectivity of the process of developing knowledge than ever before.

This has implications for the field of education, implications for all of us engaged in education, and especially for you. You must seek to acquire knowledge, you must memorize vocabulary for example, but you must also seek to evaluate the information you are working with. Where does it come from? Whose point of view does it reflect? What was meant? What does it make you wonder? In what ways is it helpful? In what ways is it not? What does  this information not tell you? This is a wonderful, exciting, empowering process; it puts all of us on the same level in engaging with the information we find, and it also means that we need everyone’s views more than ever.

The other point being made by Dr. Firestein was that it is what we don’t know that moves science forward. It is our ignorance that drives us to new exploration. So do not be afraid of not knowing things or not understanding. Cultivate your ignorance! Be aware of what you don’t know, allow yourself to be surprised by new knowledge. I am always surprised to notice in my classes that few of my students, usually only the most confident, will dare to say in class “I never knew that before!”  I personally encounter several things each day that take me to realms about which I know nothing, or not enough. None of us here tonight knows very much. Certainly none of you students know very much! You are just starting to form your ideas and understandings and to experience the world. So ask questions, look for questions, raise questions. If I hope anything for the coming year, I hope to hear lots of people talking about what they don’t know or understand well enough yet. Please stop by my office or write me emails to tell me what you realize you don’t really know yet. And I recommend that each of us keep a list by our pillows where we can each night write down one thing we learned that day that matters to us and one or two new questions. I will be giving each of you a pad or little notebook in which to do this, and I hope we can create a new ritual together.

Dublin School

Dublin School, Schoolhouse Rd, Dublin, NH, 03444, United States