The ignoramus may be the only dinosaur that never went extinct. Its DNA is in us all whenever we feel superior and better-informed than others. Ironically, education itself can exacerbate this chronic condition where we become dinosaurs by resting on our intellectual laurels. Many classes teach their disciplinary bias as though it were universally applicable and one, psychology, may even do so to the detriment of its status as a prized member of the social sciences. Crucial to our ability to put our learning to practice use, we must beware of becoming one of “those who boast professional knowledge yet who do not know what they do not know” (McGavin., 2019)
At the broader societal level there are some things many people agree on: that science is a great way to discover facts is one such example. Yet Stephen Hawking himself left not only a treasure trove of scientific learning but also a classic quote about the dangers of over-stretching the bounds of our learning. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”, he said (Hawking, 2018) With this in mind let us consider the consequences of allowing our thinking to become ignorant of what it does not know or understand.
It’s Not Always About Thy Neighbour’s Wrong Ass
Few assumptions make a greater ass out of you and me than assuming that our education automatically moves us away from ignorance and toward enlightenment. Particularly in social sciences like psychology and sociology, ‘ologies where human delight and disdain encounter the manic and sometimes bewildering flux and flow of cultural tides, the belief that learning leads to superior knowledge often swamps the fact that society itself is as changeable and ineffable as human nature itself. No matter how much we learn we are still human; disciplines evolve over time and sometimes they abruptly alter their essential epistemological grounding. In psychology, for instance, neuroscience has removed mystery from once-common dream analysis even as the murkiness of our unconscious has sunk into the psychiatric backdrop. Our brains are more than mere machines, or they are in terms of how we understand ourselves and others, but from a neuroscience perspective this is too tenuous of a reality to base ‘good science’ upon. In terms of questioning neuroscience in psychology, a course I highly recommend for fellow MAIS students is therefore PSYCH630 This class provides an antidote to the belief that psychology need not revisit its past; such assumptions are called ‘presentism’ and belay the all-too human reality that minds require more, not fewer, approaches if they are to be understood.
To avoid being an unknowing ignoramus we must beware of believing our studies accumulate cultural capital we can then dispense to others from on high. Contested terrain isn’t just the way of discourse, it can limit even our discussions with others of a similar educational background if we assume “we know” simply because we have studied a given topic. The knowledge/ignorance binary isn’t only woefully simplistic, it’s ironically wrong because while our learning specifies details we learn, it also tightens the screw of truth by limiting the scope of how we know what we know. As we narrow our academic focus we may exclude other ways of looking at a given topic.
The idea that knowledge is something you either possess or lack is overly simplistic; social sciences do not bequest their truths in the form of Jeopardy answers. P.A. McGavin, in a book review of Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know by Daniel R. DeNicola quotes the latter: “Only recognition of the possibility of our own ignorance opens a cognitive space for unlearning false knowledge or for genuine learning (or an improved ignorance)” (McGavin., 2019) Humility in life depends upon our willingness to learn and acquire new knowledge; but are any of these truths we learn universal or does each reality morph its spectrum depending upon the perspective of our mind’s eye? We can’t just expect the world to match our textbooks, no matter how current be their publication date.
McGavin’s book review illustrates the great dichotomous chasm between lived experience as it subjectively appears and cultural reality as social science sometimes teaches it. DeNicola writes: “wherever mastery of knowledge and skills creates professional status, especially in practices that give professional power over clients, there arises a natural pride that rests on what one knows, and a regrettable tendency for authority to develop arrogance. We know the effects: failure to listen, premature dismissal of relevant information” (ibid). My best brick and mortar psychology professor, in a course aptly titled “Interpersonal Communication” was at pains to remind us that, too often, psychology’s ideology focuses on individuation (the mapping of a given discontent onto a framework of individual core beliefs, neurological chemistry, and temperamental moods) to the poverty of a client’s social circumstances. She reminded us that many well-meaning psychiatrists and psychologists go through entire careers without seriously considering individuals as being more than minds vacuum-locked in their solitary shells. An ironic fact indeed, given that counselling itself is an eminently social act!
Believing oneself to have learned truths about social life that need only be dished out as from a Pez dispenser is problematic enough. Yet, even more damningly when we consider the groupthink endemic in many education settings, DeNicola also states that “the restriction of experience, the prohibitions and censorship of knowledge that such sustained naiveté would likely require, become a kind of imposed ignorance… [such innocence does] not cross the threshold of moral maturity” (ibid). To downplay experience isn’t just something cults do to have members drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. It’s also a classic social science trick aimed theoretically at getting students to challenge their ideological predilections. If you’ve ever been lectured in a brick and mortar classroom and then realized that the conclusions the professor were drawing did not match your own experience, or even possibly the experience of you along with everyone you knew, then you get what I’m saying. The struggle is real!
Happily, at AU we can learn material and better our brains without having to be marinated in a social environment that doesn’t match our lives. We want to question our beliefs if they don’t match the data. Yet education isn’t about producing yes-people to whatever authority figure is present. Learning is about teaching us to use our critical faculties especially where unassailable dogmas are concerned. And sometimes those dogmas are embedded deep within our chosen discipline.