General Ignorance and Knowledge

When I was seventeen I had an interview for Cambridge University. I had been coerced into applying to study medicine there, which was, and as far as I was concerned, was always going to be, a disastrous choice. That’s another story and a long one for another time.

I was asked which medical practitioner I most admired. The response I gave was ‘Christiaan Barnard’, not because I was hugely enthusiastic about organ transplantation, let alone heart transplantation, but because I’d heard of him (like most people on the planet).

So far so good, but other questions followed, and I kept trying to disguise my complete absence of any real knowledge of the field of medicine by referencing everything back to Dr Barnard, though save his moment of pioneering surgery I could have told you nothing whatsoever about him. Dr Barnard could have performed the first heart transplant in Todmorden in 1852 for all I knew.

I became like Father Jack in the Father Ted episode where he answers, “That would be an ecumenical matter,” to every question put to him, simply because he’s learned it by rote.

For a few years afterwards (it goes without saying that the authorities at Cambridge decided they could press on without me) I believed that I might have stood a chance of gaining entry to the university if I had applied for a subject I was stronger at, and also interested in: namely English Literature.

I now consider myself to have been mistaken. Remembering my school days and A-level studies, I fancied myself to be educated, which in general is a sure sign of ignorance. True, I knew the course texts thoroughly and did a fair bit of extra-curricular reading, including a dozen or so Shakespeare plays and even some of his contemporaries. Arthur Miller’s plays I also digested, and I read well beyond the segment of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that we would be examined on. Yet my leisure reading didn’t change from the awful diet of trash sci-fi and celebrity biographies that I now feel vaguely ashamed about for another few years, and I left most of the history of literature entirely untouched.

The point is that I left school with excellent grades and knew absolutely nothing. My knowledge was pitifully limited. I had no idea about anything. I had made the same mistake all too many people do of assuming my education happened at school, and what I didn’t learn at school no reasonable person could possibly expect me to know. I still hear this sentiment expressed fairly frequently, even amongst people of my own age group (who should know better).

“Of course I don’t know anything about Einstein’s life and work – we didn’t cover that at school.”

This is why I think that the education system gets it all wrong. It’s absurd to lump knowledge into arbitrary units that can be covered in a dozen or so core subjects. No wonder I left school highly qualified, deeply ignorant, and with virtually no knowledge about the world or my place in it. Almost everyone does. It’s the way the system is designed.

Wouldn’t it be a far better scheme to expose young people to lectures about subjects that might fire their minds? If guest tutors had come in to give talks on the history of organ transplantation, the revolution in physics caused by quantum mechanics, the life and work of Mark Twain, the simultaneous rise of satire and death of reverence in popular culture in the 1960s, the crossing of the Bering Strait by our human ancestors during the last ice age and the founding of the New World, the history of agriculture and the end of the nomadic lifestyle – to name but a few topics, such seminars would have fired my imagination and encouraged me to delve into subjects of my own volition.

Themes could stretch across all areas, and pupils would have to choose to attend six lectures per term out of a choice of twenty. The talks would last for no longer than an hour and be delivered in an exciting and engaging way by visiting university experts in the field who want to share their research and passion for their subject with young people.

Is this a good idea? Would it decrease ignorance? Would it help young people see the point in things, recognise their own strengths and weaknesses and broaden their horizons?

The problem I had with mathematics was that I could never decipher the language of it; and nor could I appreciate the application. Perhaps if the purpose of the subject had been explained along with basic usage I might have enjoyed a closer relationship to it?

I remain ashamed of my areas of glaring ignorance and try to increase my knowledge base, knowing that time is finite and I have to be selective over my choice of reading matter. Ignorance in others irritates me, especially when it is self-excused or worn as a badge of honour.

Knowledge isn’t just intrinsically important for its own sake: it’s our attitude towards knowledge that matters, as well as our attitude towards ignorance. Our ability to build on the achievements of former generations is what marks our species out from all others.

Photo by Samuel Payne

Knowledge is important for resisting the spread or acceptability of bad ideas: but that’s a whole other argument.