Diffusion of Useful Ignorance… and Self Forgiveness

I’ve been inspired to study Thoreau again, and suspect this will generate a number of posts here. I’m heavily annotating what I read and have found much I want to write about, some of which would be in the realm of “and life” posts – though some of it would be relevant to this blog in other ways as well, which is to say it would relate to education and technology. In the interest of getting something posted tonight, I want to focus on one particular idea that has resonated with me. 

The purpose of education might be said to be the “Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,” but Thoreau suggests that there is “equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance… for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance?” Elsewhere he asks, “how can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”

In short, as educators, it is often difficult to admit that we are ignorant… but of course, no matter how learned we are, everyone is always more ignorant than not. If we are to be true educators (and if we are to grow and learn ourselves – and be lead learners) we must embrace our own useful ignorance. But we must also work to diffuse this mindset within our institutions – and among our students. Helping them to adopt an attitude of useful ignorance might be one of the best learning tools we can offer to students – and one of the best gifts we can offer them in life.

I’m not drawing this from Thoreau, but I’ve found that this attitude works well hand-in-hand with the practice of forgiving yourself for your own shortcomings. Together these two attitudes can help a learner (or members of an organization) to not only let go of preconceptions, but also to let go of the burden of needing to be responsible for having preconceptions (or accurate understandings) of the world to begin with. This makes it easier to accept the world as it is, to learn new things from new experiences, and in short – to grow.

I think Thoreau means many more things when he talks about “useful ignorance” (including his believe that there is a “subconscious magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright”), and I suspect I’ll return to these more abstract ideas, too. But in the meantime, I’m finding this simple reminder to embrace and diffuse useful ignorance a pragmatic source of clarity, particularly in the context of sharing increasingly intoxicating information technologies with others. :)

One Response to “Diffusion of Useful Ignorance… and Self Forgiveness”

  1. Stu Harris Says:

    The statement “everyone is more ignorant than not” reminded me of a quote from Enstein “As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it.” I use this often but modify it slightly “as the circumference of the circle of the light of knowledge increases, so does the darkness around it”. In other words….the more we know the more we don’t know. Good thing to remember. Especially as an educator.