Jaime Holmes: On the Need to Teach Ignorance!

Dear Commons Community,

Jamie Holmes, a fellow at New America and the author of the forthcoming book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, proposing that faculty need to do a better job of teaching ignorance. He posits that too much of what faculty teach emphasizes what is known but it is the unknown which unleashes the creativity to experiment and seek answers. He provides several vignettes of faculty who have felt the need to teach ignorance in their courses. For example:

“In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them— not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.”

Holmes concludes:

“The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature (as illustrated by a new book, “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies”). But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

The time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant,” the sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey have boldly argued. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.”

Is ignorance bliss?



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