Children are acclaimed for their ability to soak up information like sponges. They approach the world with a blank slate. From sight, to walking, to talking, to reading, there is an instinct to naively make sense of their surroundings. Children ask hundreds of questions; easy questions, hard questions, silly questions and obvious questions – often the questions that we’re too afraid to ask.
Children aren’t fearful of the answer. What is there to fear? Not knowing the answer? That feeling…? That deep feeling in your gut when you wish you’d paid attention in class, read that book or listened to your friend? That feeling is probably a societal conditioning, ingrained in adults. Children are fearless – they do not worry about not knowing. Perhaps this absence of fear is why children are such incredible learners. By contrast, the abundance of fear is an adult’s primary restraint. After all, how can we learn something if we cannot admit what we don’t know?
A Revolution in Ignorance
This concept has been on my mind for a while but really hit me like a rock in the face when reading Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens. Harari notes that before the scientific revolution humans used to think that religion had all the answers to important questions. Civilisations conquered for money, land, control and glory but did not think they had anything to learn from the conquered civilization. Harari attributes the very slow development of knowledge and technology during this period to the inability to admit what is unknown. The scientific revolution brought a willingness to admit ignorance and learn about the unknown.
Declaring what we don’t know allows us to investigate the unknown and learn from it. Science accepts that the things we think we know could be proven incorrect as new information becomes available. Harari uses Columbus’ discovery of America as a funny example of how fixated humans were with their conventional conception of knowledge.
When Colombus landed in what is now called the West Indies he thought he had landed on the eastern shores of Asia and called the land the “East Indies.” A few theories emerged thereafter which speculated that the East Indies was a completely new continent, rather than East Asia, but Colombus never bought into the theory. At the same time, an Italian explorer by the name of Amerigo Vespucci began to advocate the new theory. Eventually, a map maker applied Vespucci’s name to a map that became popular, calling the continent America, after Amerigo. America could very have been called Colombia – if Colombus was willing to admit his ignorance.
Prior to the scientific revolution, the unknown was demarked on maps by monsters and sea creatures. In subsequent years, after Colombus’ folly, map makers drew wide open expanses in the oceans to signify the unknown.
The more I learn, the more interested I become in learning and learning how to learn. Appreciating what we don’t know and embracing the unknown is potentially a critical element. Here’s to approaching the world with childlike curiosity.
To finish, a quote provided to me by my friend, Brent Burgoyne:
“The bigger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder”