Knowing What You Don’t Know


Michael Fordham has blogged recently about what is needed to discriminate between historical sources. Without specific knowledge about the historical period with which they deal, no amount of generic ‘source analysis skills’ will help us. Indeed, the skill of discriminating between reliable and unreliable information in any area is based on our knowledge of that area. Once again, generic skills turn out to be a myth, and what is needed is domain specific knowledge. Fordham used two sources to demonstrate his point. One dealt with Nazi Germany, a topic with which many of his readers will have some familiarity, while the other concerned seventh century Britain, about which most of us are rather more ignorant.

What was so clever about Fordham’s approach here was that he gave us, his readers, the experience of ignorance. It’s worth reflecting further on what this is. In my own field, I know a reasonable amount about Romantic authors, but I am extremely hazy about the Augustan period. It’s one of those gaps which I know I need to fill in my own education. How do I know that? How did I come to be aware of my own ignorance?

Firstly, I needed to know that there is such a thing as classical literature, by which I mean literature that has been widely read and studied over generations, and has had a large cultural and philosophical impact. Without that knowledge, I wouldn’t have been aware that it is worth bothering reading old things.

Then, I needed to know that there are different periods of literature, reflecting large scale shifts in the cultural landscape that are connected to historical events such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment or the French Revolution.

Finally, I needed to have the experience of actually knowing a reasonable amount about one of these literary / historical periods, through sustained study of the writers and events of that time. This gives me a point of comparison with those periods about which I know very little.

In fact, a large amount of knowledge is needed before we truly understand our own ignorance. This is a paradox which everyone who has studied something to an advanced level has realised. The more we know about a subject, the more we realise that we don’t know. Ever new fields of knowledge open up before us, and we realise that a whole lifetime will not be enough to master them all.

Without coherent instruction in specific fields of knowledge, our pupils will never even know enough about anything in particular to know that they are ignorant about anything else. They will never be able to make such a statement as I made in my second paragraph. Those who are truly ignorant do not recognise their ignorance; for them, almost everything is an unknown unknown.

It is absolutely crucial to be able to identify our lack of knowledge. Without this ability, we will easily fall into the delusion that we are capable of judging matters about which we know nothing. We may even make such statements as ‘Well, that’s my personal opinion, and you should respect it’, without reference to any external, objective standard of measurement.

Knowing what we don’t know matters, not only intellectually, but morally. Recognising our ignorance is vital to developing the humility that is the foundation of true wisdom.


3 thoughts on “Knowing What You Don’t Know

  1. It is so wonderful to have good sources; or at least well-written arguments. These days we have so much to sort through. It makes thorough investigation very hard. Logic and having a somewhat removed but still fully human view are what I stand by.


  2. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss ‘generic skills’.

    After all, if I have to impart knowledge about a subject, I need to have to knowledge in the first place. And I have to know how to transmit it. Not always easy. You can find out whether I’ve done my job by testing my students.

    But if my job is seen as teaching ‘twenty-first century skills’ … well, how can anyone tell whether I’ve done a good job, or a bad one? Or have done anything at all, for that matter. So some people are on to a good thing here…. don’t spoil it for them!


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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