David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
I Know That I Don't Know What I Don't Know

June 27, 2014

At work, people are buzzing about an apparent ghost (or maybe more) living in my wing of my office.  It’s made for great hallway and water cooler (by the way, does anybody even use a water cooler anymore?) conversations.  When people ask me if I believe there is a ghost, my less-than-satisfying reply (to them, I am sure) is that I know there are things I don’t know. Ghosts may just be one of them.

Not knowing if there are ghosts places low on my list of identifying what I don’t know.  Higher up that list might be knowing more about trucking schools, potential partners on my college doorstep the last few weeks.  Should SMC take on a partnership with a CDL (the trade name for trucking schools)? I don’t know.  At least I know I don’t know and can set out to rectify that problem through some research.

The real challenge is identifying what we don’t know we don’t know. The essence of higher education should be exposing students to what they don’t know.  The problem is we are too busy catering to those who think they know what students don’t know and need to know.

The progression of the human race, meaning virtually every subject encompassed by our intellectual pursuits, builds upon accidentally discovering that we didn’t know what we didn’t know.  Take, for example, some caveman from long ago, who didn’t sit in a cave and say, “I don’t know how to make fire.”  The genesis (maybe not the best word to associate with a caveman figure of speech) of conquering fire came when some dolt had no clue about fire and probably did something stupid, like stick his foot in it.  “I didn’t know it would burn,” he (or she, dolts come in both genders) might have grunted in some pre-historic language.  “Of course, you didn’t know,” would have grunted the tribe elder.  “No one knew. Now what do we do with that knowledge?”

This idea of not knowing what we don’t know seems to imbue many arguments for more experiential-based learning.  “There are some things you can’t learn from a book,” might argue some Bill Gates-wannabe.  “Only when you get out in the real world do you experience the day to day unpredictability of life.”  While that is true, that is still an incredibly limited world experience.  Org’s step-into-fire might be the most influential event to happen to his cave tribe in years, but if over on the other side of the world, some guy has built a rifle, then Org doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. No amount of experience gained around his fire is going to make Org aware that he is missing out on a lot.  At least not until that European explorer shows up on his shore gun a-blazing.

A well-rounded education exposes students to as much of what is known in the world as possible, to arm them better to know what they don’t know . . . and to tread carefully every day because they know that even if they a Ph.D., there is still so much they don’t know . . . that they don’t know.    Education really will have let society down if we live the words from Blondie's "I Know But I Don't Know" -- "I care/but I don't care/I don't care/that you don't know."

In the long run, as higher education bends to the pressures of the government as well as adopts a more business-type model, most of our leaders have forgotten this important lesson.  It would take a pretty confident new President to stand in front of faculty at an investiture or convocation and admit, “I can’t say what our long-range plan is. I don’t know what I don’t know.”  The best you might get is, “I know I don’t know enough yet to make that decision. “  The humility of our own ignorance captured in the first statement evaporates like an apparition in that second statement.

I am proud to say here and now that I know I don’t know what I don’t know.  Now if you will excuse me, I have a ton of reading to do to compensate for that.