The experience of ignorance

Today I attended a meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society on the History of Climate Change Science .

It was an interesting meeting – and I will write about it another time.

But in the midst of the meeting, surrounded by experts, I was visited by an overwhelming sensation of personal and profound ignorance that filled me with despair.

  • It was the feeling of being ill-prepared for an exam – and knowing that it is too late to do anything about it.
  • It was the sickening feeling of looking over the edge into a deep, dark hole and feeling unsteady on my feet.
  • It was the feeling of looking back and realising I could have taken a different path some time ago, but now it was too late.

I felt awful. And I will not make it worse by letting you all know the particular trigger for this episode!

Of course this feeling was internal. But part of the sensation was the thought that my ignorance would be publicised and there would be some associated shame.

Why am I mentioning this?

Just remembering this feeling reminded me how powerfully destructive it is.

Reflecting on my own educational experiences. I generally ‘did well’ at school and university, and so I was rarely visited by this gut-wrenching feeling.

But I can nonetheless remember several occasions even from my early childhood when I was humiliated for not knowing something.

For example, I remember (age 10) failing to instantly the answer the multiplication question ‘6 x 7’* when asked by the head teacher.

I remember the way the numbers seemed jumbled and unclear in my head and I just didn’t know the answer. And I remember his ridiculous anger and my own public humiliation.

  • Why is it that I can remember that day so clearly all these years later? It must have made a powerful impression.
  • Why would anybody create that kind of negative feeling in the name of education? Did they think it would help?

And I guess that in many people’s educational experience this kind of maiming negative experience is commonplace.

Ignorance is inevitable

Ignorance is inevitable – no one can know everything! And in recent years I have been happy to accept my own ignorance and I have stopped beating myself up about the things I don’t know.

But the panic of re-visiting that feeling today reminded me that if one ever wants to engender a love of learning in students, then using ‘fear of failure’ as a tactic is unlikely to work.


*For those troubled by such things, the answer is 42

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3 Responses to “The experience of ignorance”

  1. Nick Day Says:

    Funny thing is, other people who unlike you actually are ignorant on the subject, would quite likely not have felt the same sense of unease. Dunning-Kruger effect?

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Ahhh. So that effect has a name: thank you for elucidating that particular pool of ignorance 🙂 MIxed metaphors: – sorry: M

  3. Nick Day Says:

    It’s worth reading up on DK effect, really quite amusing. Cheers.

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