Education Opinion

Teachers Finally Realize: They Don’t Know Everything

Confused teacher
Written by Peter Walken

In the 1980s, Professor Marlys H. Witte from the University of Arizona raised a lot of questions with her proposal to introduce a course called Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance. How could doctors and professors ever tame their ego and accept the fact that the volume of knowledge they had was nothing when compared to the things they didn’t know? Clearly, Witte’s idea was not approach with acclaim.

Officials asked Dr. Witte to change the name of this course, but she was determined to proceed with her plan and explain how every topic in medicine is accompanied with tons of ‘hidden knowledge’. The professor acknowledged the fact that the existing practical experience and knowledge contributed to future discoveries. However, she also explained that “the provisional information of much biological information and the need for continuous self-renewal to avoid obsolescence make it apparent that mere accumulation of up-to-date facts and acquisition of competent skills cannot adequately prepare students for medicine’s future.”

For example, you can read several pages elaborating pancreatic cancer in a medical textbook, but you won’t realize that doctors don’t know much about it. Dr. Witte brought an important change in education: she assumed that students and professors needed to understand the limits of their current knowledge and ask more questions! Fortunately, this project was funded by the American Medical Association, and students were able to attend one of their favorite courses, entitled Ignorance 101.

A Trend Started: Teachers and Students Realized How Little They Knew

Not every college and university contains ‘ignorance’ classes in its program. Although these courses are rare, scholars finally realized that they need to make students aware of the uncertainty in science. Teaching the information we are aware of is fine, but the learners should never stop wondering! When educational institutions emphasize clarity, they produce rigid graduates, who are not willing to take unexpected opinions and findings into consideration.

Professor Stuart J. Firestein followed Dr. Witte’s lead. In 2006, he started teaching a course on scientific ignorance. Since most of his students believed that neuroscientists have discovered nearly everything there is to know about the brain, he decided to show them wrong. His commitment to this course resulted with the popular book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, published in 2012.

In this book, Professor Firesten explains: “This crucial element in science was being left out for the students. The undone part of science that gets us into the lab early and keeps us there late, the thing that ‘turns your crank,’ the very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown, all this is missing from our classrooms.” He was committed to teaching students about the ignorance – the realization that is supposed to drive them towards new discoveries.

The Problem with Presenting Ignorance

How can professors present the things they don’t know? How can they teach an entire course on this matter? Clearly, the concept of ignorance is simpler and less extensive than knowledge, which is a stable category that can easily inspire people to write textbooks of 1000+ pages. Students perceive ignorance as something they should and can ‘repair’. For example, they can easily get assignment help from services listed on when they have to complete a project on a topic they don’t understand. They approach ignorance not as an infinite category, but as something they can easily solve.

The thing they don’t realize is that answers do not resolve the questions; they always lead to new problems.

Australian professor Michael Smithson found the right words to elaborate the reasons for teaching courses on ignorance: “the larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline – where knowledge meets ignorance – extends.”

Thus, ignorance is an extensive category that only proliferates when new facts are added to the base of knowledge. No religion, no professor, and no assignment writing service can change that fact. It’s time to stop considering ignorance as something deviant. When a student realizes he doesn’t know everything, he is only inspired to learn more.

About the author

Peter Walken

Peter Walken is an independent editor, an award-winning writer, and an editorial consultant. He is currently a contributing editor at News Examiner, where he has worked as a senior editor.

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