While some of you have heard of it, I am delighted to introduce what will be a new word for some of you, agnotology. Keep reading to find out what it means. Read a bit more to join me in exploring its value for education.
The first library book that I remember picking up was in first grade at a small school library in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. It was an over-sized book, full of pictures and stories about haunted houses. Then there was the book nearby about UFOs, with another one about the legends of the Loch Ness monster. I could look at these books for hours. I was less interested in actually reading them at the time, but they drew me into this world of questions and mysteries. These books pointed me to the fact that we live in a world of unexplained mysteries, something too easy to forget. While there is much that we know, there is so much more that we do not. As such, we walk through a world of unexplored, unexplained, partly explained, and mis-represented mysteries. Just when we think that we have learned something new, our eyes are opened to how much more we do not.
One of the century-old purposes of school has been to pass down knowledge from one generation to another. Even in a world of free and accessible information that still matters. However, for every fact taught in school, there are thousands of unanswered questions, ambiguities, and unsolved mysteries.
School can sometimes be about memorizing and understanding the hunted, shot, and stuffed facts of the past. That has a valuable place for all of us. It only becomes a problem when it turns learning into a museum tour instead of a wonderfully unpredictable lifelong safari. We must learn what is known, but also be reminded of how much we do not know. Unanswered questions, mysteries, and ambiguities provoke the much-needed virtue of curiosity which, if nurtured, can bloom into a lifelong love of learning that drives one to solve some of those mysteries, discover new answers to those questions, and bring clarity to ambiguities.
That is why I enjoyed reading Jamie Holmes’ piece in the New York Times on, The Case for Teaching Ignorance. It introduces readers to the field of agnotology (the study of ignorance). It also offers a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between questions and answers, how they live in a symbiotic relationship. Questions drive people to pursue answers. When questions are answered, that leads to even more questions. Perhaps that is why Confucius wrote that, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” and Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.”
Ask any scholar or deeply informed student of a discrete domain about what most interests them about their study or work. You will almost always find them talking about questions, mysteries, the unknown or partly known, the ambiguities and paradoxes of their study. Ask any entrepreneur or business person the same about their work. More often than not it will reside with challenges that they face, goals that have yet to achieve, and questions that they grapple to answer. That is because learning is fueled by questions more than answers. As Neil Armstrong is quoted as saying, “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”
This is part of why I see such an important role for practices like project-based learning, challenge-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and self-directed learning. They are forms of teaching and learning that do not start with disseminating facts. They start by conjuring curiosity. Along the way, they also breed an important mix of confidence in one’s capacity as an educational sojourner and humility about the vast, wonderful and largely unknown universe around us.