The Humility of Learning

Someone told me recently that education is a quintessentially humbling experience.

If you are truly learning, then by definition you are pushing the limits of what you know. The further you advance in this process, the closer you come to pushing the limits of what anyone knows.

You may even eventually have the capacity to generate new knowledge, but there’s a whole lot of not knowing that comes first. Well, really, there’s a whole lot of not knowing the whole time.

I find that image of education resonate, but also kind of odd – why should a lack of knowledge be shaming in the first place?

To be fair, there are many different ways to not have knowledge.

For example, I have very little patience for those who are willfully ignorant. If you think you know everything, but don’t actually know anything – that’s a problem. If you aren’t interested in exploring other data, viewpoints, or opinions – that’s a problem. If you simply refuse to learn about a topic which is entirely relevant to you – that’s kind of a problem.

But if you simply don’t know something –

Well, that should be forgivable.

Expected, even.

And yet our social norms seem to prohibit admitting such weakness.

I mean, I can’t be the only person whose been known to use the phrase, “yeah, that sounds familiar…” as code for, “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.”

It’s like the law of always saying yes in improv – when someone asks if you are familiar with something, it just feels right to claim you are.

The only problem with that, of course, is that you never learn anything if you don’t ask.

The Internet has changed that a bit, I suppose, as I have been known to make a mental list of things to Google later.

But generally speaking, if you don’t ask – if you don’t admit a lack of knowledge – you will never learn.

And that is humbling.

But it shouldn’t be shaming.

We all have a lot to learn. We all have so much to learn.

And none of us will ever know everything.

So I like to sign off sometimes – particularly after a long rant full of my own views, opinions, and biases; after pontificating about anything I claim to know – I like to sign off with the one thing I do know:

I know nothing.


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