On Embracing Ignorance

On Embracing Ignorance

It is baffling how as we age, the less enthusiastic we become about probing the unknown for an answer, and the less we satisfy the urge to ask nagging questions until the void of ignorance is reasonably filled.

Why is it that as we get older in this information age, where knowledge is ubiquitous, we find it more difficult to be the curious adventurers we once were growing up?

Growing up through preschool and kindergarten we were allowed to be ignorant. We were encouraged to ask questions no matter how ‘stupid’ they seemed. It was okay not to know. Back then, questions lingered in our minds like dead weights, and it was our primary objective to find an answer to those questions in a bid to free our minds from the burden of curiosity. We rejected the lingering ignorance of not understanding something, and would almost instantaneously blurt out our questions as they formed in our heads without worrying about constructing a more suitable query; just simple questions with the hope of an equally simple answer.

"Why is the sky blue?" … "Why is water wet?" … "If the earth is round why haven’t we fallen off yet?". The beauty of these queries lies in how deceptively simple they are; straightforward enough, yes, but with onerously complex answers. Walk into any kindergarten, and you would notice the almost unregulated nature of the space, where inquirers, not 'students', try to make sense of the world around them, developing contextual, and many times unrelated, inquiries in their heads. Voices roar over each other in attempt to offload the dead weight of an unanswered question; eyes fixated on the source of answers, their teacher.

The cacophony of this quest for responses grows louder with each unanswered question. This environment, bustling with creativity, starkly contrasts with that of a typical middle or high school classroom. One might confound the lack of excitement with tranquility, or erroneously describe the apparent apathy as placid disposition. The truth, however, lies somewhere closer to the students' sheer disinterest in active questioning at that age. They become something less than inquirers, they become students; quasi-robots taking in and acting on instructions without challenging their teachers with queries or posing new ones, like they used to.

The Schools Cliff: Students' Engagement Drops Over Time

Data via Gallup Student Poll

The relationship between questioning and age

The plethora of evidence suggests that the older children get, the less they question. An initial assumption would be that they simply know more at that age and so have less to ask, but the number of questions that still need answers in our society is infinite, way more than can be satisfied by the marginal increase in their understanding of the world around them. The phenomenon of fewer questions it seems, can be more attributed in large to societal norms downplaying ‘over questioning’ and the stigma against asking ‘dumb’ or ‘silly’ questions.

Another potential cause is the manner in which educational institutions passively discourage questioning. As Warren Berger describes in his book, A More Beautiful Question, educational institutions create an environment that demands students to have more right answers than their colleagues; a system that rewards correct and formulaic answers, and unfairly penalizes wrong ones. These institutions thus create a rigid hierarchical system that is neither creatively nor intellectually constructive.

The number of questions that still need answers in our society is infinite

Berger also attempts to discover the fundamental through-line between the greatest inventors, change-makers and innovators known to man. During this research, which spanned my years and involved countless sit-downs and interviews of varying conditions, he discovered that these innovators were not just excellent questioners, but avid ones as well.

Many great companies such as Google and Airbnb started out with a question. Questions along the lines of “How can we organize the world's information?" or “Why is this specific thing done in this way?” ... "Can it be done better?". Although seemingly broad and unfocused initially, these kinds of questions set the foundation for more questions, thus leading down a path of understanding by allowing the inquirer to narrow down on their query, refining it more along the way. This cascading chain reaction of inquiry is what is at the helm of institutions that continue to push the envelope.


Embracing the silly questions

In the information era we live in today, it is counterintuitive that we ask fewer questions and rather stick to dogmatic ways of thinking. Our collective stigmatization of ignorance has made it tempting to remain quiet when it is much easier to find answers than ever. In today's world, an individual’s knowledge base, in relation to the expansive, and growing, pool of knowledge, is shrinking. Our way of combating this through active questioning cannot be stressed enough, meaning it has become more important to develop queries that could eventually shape our thoughts and even actions.

Berger discovered that these innovators were not just excellent questioners, but avid ones as well.

Embracing the ‘silly’ questions is exactly how visionaries such as Aristotle, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, and many others changed the world, and continue to do so with their innovations, even long after their passing. These individuals repeatedly and confidently asked 'silly' questions, at the risk of looking vacuous. It seems then that being brazen and embracing those juvenile queries; those that linger at the tip of our tongues but remain suppressed at the risk of being wrong, is how original ideas are birthed.

% of Children Asking Questions Across Ages

Data via The Right Question Institute

Kids lose their ability to be comfortable with being wrong as they grow, and dangerously so. Picasso once said “every child is born an artist…”, the challenge is to remain an artist growing up; but most of us fail to continue to engage our creative thinking faculties; that ability to look or tackle problems from a freshly ignorant perspective, resulting in unorthodox or novel solutions. This kind of thinking is becoming more and more uncommon, and unless we can engage it using simple questions, we run the risk of losing the ability completely. 

Questions knock on the doors of knowledge, and thus are the first step in unlocking our innate creative thinking ability. Next time you have a question, no matter how silly it may be, you should ask, whether you’re asking someone, or yourself, or the internet, just ask. Because it is the naive; those who take the first steps in asking the silly Whys, What ifs, and Hows, who end up changing the world.

Elikem is a director at VERY TEMPORARY, to get in touch, send him an email.

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