Ignorance: A Prerequisite for Knowledge

by Elise Berendt

Having witnessed my fair share of of campus controversies and scandals over the past three years, I’m sometimes hesitant to admit how unilaterally positive my college experience has been—as enormous a privilege as it is to attend Scripps, it takes even more personal privilege to be able to say that I love being a Scripps student and have never felt threatened, silenced, or disenfranchised as a member of the community. But, seeing as several weeks into the school year we’ve yet to hear of any major administrative offenses, I’ll take advantage of this period of relative calm to discuss something I truly appreciate about institutions of higher education in general: our primary responsibility here is to learn, and to keep learning.

Whatever your degree of involvement in online social networks, you may have noticed that a lack of knowledge on important topics is considered a cardinal sin in some circles. With so much emphasis placed on heightened social consciousness, it can be uncomfortable, even shameful, to admit you don’t already know something. The promise of condescension or scorn in the face of even earnest admissions of ignorance makes for an effective gatekeeping method.

So, without diminishing the importance of self-education—pursued in your own time and on your own terms; motivated by curiosity and compassion rather than fear of callouts—I’d like to submit that it’s okay to not know, to not have known. It’s okay if you’re unfamiliar with that term that’s come up now in multiple class readings. (Three weeks ago I’d never encountered the word “positionality”; three years before that I’d never specifically heard of symbolic violence or gender essentialism or, hell, even intersectionality.) It’s okay if a critical piece of news back in July completely flew under your radar. It’s okay if you’re just now realizing why a belief you once held, even outwardly expressed, was damaging to someone else’s identity or worldview. Naturally, some of these knowledge and awareness gaps require more patching than others—a retroactive apology, a heartfelt conversation, rather than just a quick Tumblr research session—but in most non-extreme cases, the process of growing beyond your limitations should liberate more than it punishes.

Like prejudice, genuine ignorance is not something you can wake up one day and put behind you. Unlike prejudice, it’s not something you want to rid your mind of. Even disregarding specialized knowledge and technical jargon, even confining your scope to one area of expertise or committing to a single cause, there’s always, always more to learn.

Moreover, filling in visible knowledge gaps often reveals previously unseen ones. Just as trying to label every value on a number line, dividing every new interval along its midpoint, will only give you smaller and smaller place values, seeking to know absolutely everything about any specific human experience will stall you in your forward momentum. Realize that the tick marks march on, tighter and fainter, toward the infinity of the rational set, and accept that you’re not obligated to follow them there. Move on to the next whole number in your personal sequence.

I don’t want to praise inattention or thoughtlessness, let alone anti-intellectualism, and I certainly don’t want to excuse the harm done by these mindsets. But not knowing doesn’t equate to not caring. “Learner” is a much more comfortable role to occupy than “knower”—less precarious, too. It can and should be a title we carry with us long after “student” ceases to apply.

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