Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Praise of Not Knowing

A quite unusual op-ed piece managed to sneak its way on to the Sunday Opinion pages of the New York Times on Sunday, June 19. Called "In Praise of Not Knowing" and written by Tim Krieder, a writer and cartoonist who is preparing an essay collection entitled "We Learn Nothing," the piece celebrates the thrilling feeling which has become increasingly rare in the internet age of possessing knowledge of something that appears to be unknown to just about everyone else. The author recounts a time in the 1980s when he and a friend learned about an obscure contemporary classical music composer named Harry Partch and the delight they experienced in seeming to be the unique holders of this rarefied knowledge. This, of course, was before Mr. Partch could be googled and turn out to have, among other things, a lengthy Wikipedia entry to his credit.

In the end, though, what Mr. Krieder really wants to discuss is how rare it has become in an era of "instant accessibility" to enjoy the exhilaration of not knowing the answer to every question that can be posed. Not knowing, he argues, fuels curiosity and the drive to find things out. Having ready answers to everything, whether correct or not, actually deters the motivation to learn, to uncover life's greatest quandaries. More than ever, he seems to be arguing, we must work at keeping some of the available answers at bay. It follows, too, that we must value the questions at least as much as the answers, and devote more time to helping learners develop a sense of wonder and encouraging them to revel in what appear to be the unconquerable mysteries of life.

As Mr. Krieder says in his conclusion, learning to turn ignorance into mystery and not knowing into a sense of wonder may have become the most neglected of skills. "It turns out," Mr. Krieder affirms, "that the most important things in this life--why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us are things we're never going to know."

So, I say, let the not knowing begin. We have nothing to lose but a few answers that were most likely arrived at prematurely without a whole lot of thought or effort anyway.


  1. I don't buy it. The Internet is an amazing tool; I don't find that being able to find things out dampens my curiosity.

  2. Thanks, John. Your response certainly doesn't surprise me, but perhaps it is turning out to be true that younger folks, who did not benefit from your own pre-internet searches for answers to perplexing questions, lack the motivation to seek out new knowledge.