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The Value of Ignorance
People bemoan the current generation’s lack of knowledge, but a little uncertainty and intellectual humility can be a good thing
“How was lunch?” I ask my 11-year-old daughter. She dumps her backpack as though it’s filled with her disdain for the annual return to organized learning. Lunch seems like her favorite part of the day, and I want to ensure that she’s getting enough nutrients but still staying hungry for knowledge. For years I tried to persuade her that learning is fun, only to find growing resistance toward my attempts.
I once took the four-year-old Nova to the science museum’s space exhibit in hopes that she’d claim her namesake and a love for cosmology. But as we settled into an introductory video, her eyes filled with horror as they reflected the image of the exploding Challenger. Another time, I bought a children’s philosophy book that spurred a discussion of the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” As the thought washed over her, she became frustrated, shook her head and broke my heart with one statement: “I don’t like philosophy, Mommy.” I can’t say I blame her—that was a tough one, and when the going gets tough, we now have 24/7 access to feel-good media that has kids dreaming of a YouTube career in cyberspace over one in outer space.
Are we really going to let these kids fill up on junk media and edutainment? In trying to democratize knowledge, are we watering it down and promoting the proliferation of YouTubers and TikTokers at the expense of hard-earned, serious data? I mean, I did quit my job as a scientist and now make content on the internet, so is it me? Hi, am I the problem, me? Maybe my kid will never develop a hunger for knowledge, and maybe I’m part of the problem. Maybe we’re witnessing the death of expertise and a crisis of truth and knowledge—but is it possible that there’s value in our ignorance?
The Knowledge Machine
Though ignorance isn’t a desirable end state, if we’re not first ignorant, we’ll never be able to acquire knowledge. Knowing everything is a boring sort of heat death, anyway. The fun part seems to be watching humans go from ignorant to informed and somehow back to ignorant again. Nietzsche warned us, when he declared God dead, that something like this epistemic crisis was coming. We’ve been dumping all our faith into the great human Knowledge Machine that turns ignorance into understanding through science and reason, and one casualty for many people was the idea of God. Now we’ve got to figure out what’s what on our own.
Luckily for us, as Aristotle said, humans desire to know, so we carry around knowledge as we do trinkets, rubber-stamped by the institutions (academia, tech, government, etc.) that sponsor the Knowledge Machine. Systems thinker Buckminster Fuller, among others, noted that because the machine is pumping out information at an astonishing pace, we’re bound to run into some problems. In 1971, computer scientists John Dutton and William Starbuck stated one difficulty: “As a model of a complex system becomes more complete, it becomes less understandable.” It turns out, the Knowledge Machine might be built on the Socratic foundation that the more we know, the more we don’t.
In my futile attempt at knowing things, I recently read that the entire standard model of physics might be wrong because a muon experiment produced some interesting results. Great! I thought to myself. This is exactly the problem. People don’t trust science because every time we think we know something, it turns out we don’t. Shouldn’t the Knowledge Machine have a self-correcting function?
I do recall a story about Galileo peddling some wacky ideas (which for various reasons were not rubber-stamped by the ruling institutions). Weirdly, the Knowledge Machine really started cranking after Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo broke the entire Aristotelian worldview. The heliocentric model offered few explanations, but the tension between it and the conventional wisdom of the time spurred interest in not only astronomy but also our own perceptions—and, importantly, caused us to question the motives behind the institutions that maintain the machine. It seems like what causes problems is our certainty in comparing previously rubber-stamped facts with new, possibly conflicting, ideas. Perhaps the obstacle is, as educator Daniel Boorstin puts it, “not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.”
With all the conflicting ideas and illusions of knowledge circulating, it’s no wonder we need to zone out on mindless content for hours: We simply can’t process everything that’s happening. In TikTok language, “Broooo, we’re doing too much.” I learned this lingo (and more) from a viral skit I shared of a TikToker, @Whiskybizz, demonstrating behaviors typical of teenagers today. About half of the 15,000+ comments condemned this generation of kids (and parents) as the downfall of humanity. The other commenters enjoyed the skit as representative of how each generation of youth deviates from the previous one.
I’m in the latter camp—while we might think the world is going to hell, information is increasing, and so is our ability to take it in. Global literacy jumped from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015. These kids can read. There are simply a lot more ways of consuming information now, and more than 64% of the global (and 94% of the U.S.) population has access to the internet. Maybe we just need time to process everything, and we should refrain from drawing conclusions from the myriad books, essays, psychological studies, films and short-form videos that say we’re doomed. As the great Bertrand Russell once said, “When all the experts agree, they may well be wrong.”
One topic on which most experts seem to agree is that people need to be educated, but to what extent is education actually helping people deal with the epistemic crisis? We send kids to school for 12 years, where we inflate grades and even pass students who don’t meet basic standards, all to prepare them for a very expensive post-secondary education—and then expect the vast majority to have learned enough for the remaining 50 years of their life.
The universities are brimming with degree seekers, but the Knowledge Machine quickly renders those pieces of paper obsolete. So, we encourage a professionalized chunk of these students to maintain their degree with additional certifications and continuing education credits because the Knowledge Machine told us that as people become experts, they gain humility—but now we’re not even sure about that. We’re all overestimating how much we know, and formal education isn’t doing a great job of correcting that.
While Socrates held that everyone can gain wisdom, he was not a fan of institutionalized education for the masses. His pupil, Plato, imagined an ideal society wherein philosopher kings were fit to rule the masses, but Plato didn’t think the masses should all become philosopher kings. The ancient Greeks believed in expertise.
To demonstrate how the masses treat expertise when they sense a problem with the experts, Socrates (as told by Plato) recites a parable of a seasoned captain who has a slight vision and/or hearing problem that rouses the sailors to mutiny, each clamoring to steer the ship, certain of his own ability. Until a challenge arises where they need real expertise, the sailors view the captain as a good-for-nothing stargazer.
The commodification of packaged bits of knowledge for learning is certainly a recipe for mutiny, but not exactly the kind of mutiny Socrates was sentenced to death for instigating. He is referred to as a gadfly, inflicting biting questions upon the sluggish horse of the state. Socrates’ philosophy shows how teaching people to think can be far more dangerous for any system—yet ultimately far more productive—than what we package today: We sell what to think and even how to think, but actual thinking can’t be commercialized.
Socrates would probably drink hemlock a thousand times over before teaching the antiquated facts we still feed kids today. He’d probably be arguing over a Twitch livestream or recording his walk ‘n’ talks through the streets of Athens saying something like, “May we not say … that the most gifted minds, when they are ill-educated, become pre-eminently bad?”
I was recently reminded of the futility of memorizing facts: My friend and I were losing a game of presidential trivia at the home of Andrew Jackson. We cackled each time there was an answer we should have known, reassuring ourselves that our ignorance was noble with the words of Neil Postman: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia … culture-death is a clear possibility.” The only utility of knowing the first time Congress officially declared war (1812) was social cohesion, and only because we erroneously wrote “The French and Indian War” thinking it was in 1812. The people who won worked at Jackson’s home, The Hermitage.
Now, I don’t want my kid to win at Trivial Pursuit—unless she wants to join the cottage industry of nerd entertainment. I want her to crave knowledge that serves her. What serves humans has changed drastically over the past century, so why do we expect what we consider important knowledge to stay the same? We’re no longer digesting the standard diet of 1989 Challenger videos, textbooks and presidential trivia. Most of us would rather have what Socrates was having.
Packing School Lunch
What we are digesting are streaming video, short-form content and video games because these forms of media make information easy to swallow. And that’s a good thing, because there’s a lot to chew on these days. 70% of GenZ always ends up watching more user-generated short-form content than they intend, but are they getting anything substantial? It depends. After learning about the muons, I experimented with a silly video performing a viral TikTok dance (badly) while summarizing the esoteric findings with a punchy anti-conclusion (we’re questioning everything, LOL!)—all in under 20 seconds.
There was a lot going on in the video, and I’m surprised it generated 25,000+ views across platforms. But the interesting part was, again, in the comments:
“This is the only way we can learn science now.”
“This may be the solution to ADHD teaching.”
“This made it so easy to process with my AuDHD.”
The current flood of information is rewiring our brains, so maybe youths are actually “built different” because the Knowledge Machine changes us. Because the vast majority of information we consume is relegated to something like Andrew Jackson’s trivia night, maybe the point is not to cram in as much as possible but to inspire deeper learning. Then, we have to figure out how to adapt long-form content to our new brains so that we can collect the value in what was once an author’s uninterrupted words on a printed page, free of distraction and advertisement.
I say this not as a TikToker, but as an educator with the utmost respect for learning: We need more than rubber-stamped facts, because even those are unstable. I’m not expecting teachers to start doing TikTok dances—in fact, we all need time away from this stuff—but it might not hurt for educators to lean into what we enjoy. Socrates said, “The [captain] should not humbly beg the sailors to be commanded by him,” nor should the teacher. But both the teacher and the captain need to understand the minds of sailors and students if they wish to avoid mutiny—especially once they realize there’s so much we don’t know.
On the day I asked my daughter how lunch was, after dropping her books and decompressing, she came around. Reading my essay, she informed me that I was wrong about lunch; history is her favorite subject. Taking the full opportunity to school me, she asked if we could study for a bit—call it social cohesion. Recognizing the value of historical perspectives, I reframed our trip to the science museum and remembered how excited she was to learn how astronauts use the toilet, and how neither of us enjoyed the freeze-dried ice cream.
As for lunch, I see now that as she grows up, all I can do is patiently await her choices, gently nudging her here and there with cute videos that show fun ways to eat veggies and protein, hoping that I’ve laid good foundations. She might go through the poverty of a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos phase on the way to understanding the value of a balanced diet, but I won’t give up on helping her make good choices, and I don’t kid myself into believing that what we thought was the best thing to consume yesterday will be exactly what we’ll need tomorrow.