Knowledge and Wisdom

mind terms
Mind by John Hain

Knowledge is power, but knowing what you don’t know is wisdom.

At my high school, it said “Knowledge is power” over the front doorway. The quotation is usually attributed to Francis Bacon. It was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, especially when he was trying to establish a state university in Virginia.

I heard the second part – knowing what you don’t know is wisdom – in college from a professor who was telling us that undergraduate classes would teach us what we didn’t know. That’s why we would need graduate school.

I agree with both parts. I took enough courses to gain some knowledge and I guess it gave me some power. It led me to my teaching career, though I can’t say that knowledge ever made me feel “powerful.”

You’re not supposed to prove something with a negative, but it might be easier to see that the knowledge you don’t have will hold you back in life or your career.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” said Albert Einstein. He might have meant that you need new knowledge to solve problems.  Professor Einstein would probably agree that it is important to know what you don’t know – and be willing to admit it and willing to fill in the missing knowledge. An interesting professor I had for one of my few college science courses told us that the three most important words in the scientific method are “I don’t know.”

Knowledge is a good starting place, but besides knowing what I don’t know I have found it is important to fill in the gaps which sometimes means rethinking and unlearning.

The two parts of my opening quote appear in the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

I suppose there is a kind of wisdom of ignorance that can guide you. You find out something doesn’t work or hold true and you unlearn and relearn better knowledge.

Actually, figuring out what you don’t know isn’t so easy.  Sometimes people helpfully tell you that you don’t know.  You also have to prioritize. Some things are not worth knowing and not worth our time learning.

I do some teaching in a lifelong learning program and, like all teachers, I am constantly learning about things that I don’t know. I don’t take many courses these days, though I do take free online courses (known as MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses) occasionally.  Being unretired (yes, it’s a thing), I read more, listen to more podcasts, watch more news and quality films.

There is no lack of knowledge available. Actually, there is too much. Sifting and doing triage on information is the only way to survive.  I will admit to having a lot of pretty useless knowledge in my head and I suspect it is crowding out some of the important knowledge.

This isn’t new. Old Mr. Socrates said, “I know one thing. That I know nothing” and “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” And people are still saying it.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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