There are some things we do not need to know

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Sometimes, the pursuit of more knowledge becomes simply a process of acquisition. MOHAN DHALL writes

In education, we generally marvel at knowing and achieving, as though these are twins symbols of “success”. However, an important question arises with respect to inquiry, learning and knowing. This question, rarely asked in academic circles, is “Are there some things that we do not need to know, or should not want to know?”

Prior to judging this aspect of inquiry, it should be clear that, as an educator, my general premise is that we should learn as much as we can, question everything and seek to grow through deep inquiry.

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However, as with all maxims or “truths”, there are always limits beyond which inquiry becomes meaningless and even disrespectful or dangerous. The question is, when does the focus become lost and inquiry become a selfish distractor, rather than an important pursuit of meaning?

Whilst people may marvel at the pursuit of perfection, “improvement” and acquisitive measures such as “how much more”, at what point does human selfishness justify “knowing” at the cost of other important aspects of humanity?

It should be clear that in everyday life, people limit their experiences based on their values. For example, most people do not take psychotropic substances on account of needing a “learning experience”, and most people do not drive at the limit of their vehicle’s power in order to experience the thrill of moving at speed.

If there are clear limits in areas where there are personal dangers, should people not consider limits where there may be dangers – including that of distracting from purpose?

For a mundane example, what if wanting to know what is at the bottom of the deepest ocean, destroys the delicate environmental balance that exists there? In the process of seeking knowledge, or inquiry, the very thing subject to the study can be negatively affected. To what end? Why does knowing what is there matter? Can we not want to know?

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Acquisitive knowledge and facts

Acquisitive knowledge is, simply knowing and recalling, more. Acquiring knowledge is akin to gathering five cent pieces. Each bit of additional knowledge may have some marginal value, but can be simultaneously practically worthless. Whilst knowledge can impress, application matters more.

There are clear arguments espoused in favour of research and in favour of inquiry. However, we do not ask whether in the process of inquiry whether there is a point at which the pursuit of more knowledge is simply a process of acquisition. In talking with a theoretical mathematician he remarked that he did not have to justify the purpose of his research. It was enough that he was engaged in a process of inquiry, writing papers, presenting at conferences. It seemed like a waste of public funding – inquiry without public accountability.

In engaging in inquiry the starting point should always be: why do we want to know? Speculative inquiry can satisfy curiosity but can also encourage selfish self-indulgence. It may have some utility. However, professionalising inquiry can promote rationality at the expense of valuing intuition, emotion and other aspects of the human experience that are non-linear and non-rational.

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Scientific thinking has been responsible for incredible advances in understanding. Present day quality of life is better than it has been. Scientific investment and inquiry is valuable. However, that this is the case should not stop us from asking serious questions about the level of inquiry and the purpose and intention of acquisitive knowledge. Moreover, if we move further away from ourselves, become more outwardly motivated and outwardly affirmed, should we not ask whether we need to slow down? Whether there comes a point where inquiry should be replaced with stillness?

At what point do we draw breath and reflect? When do we ask – to what end? What is the purpose of knowing and of seeking to know? The pace of change is rapid, with many discontinuities and uncertainties. Most people are benefitting from technological advances. At the same time, there are emerging concerns about robotic technologies, the power of computer algorithms, the destructive power of increasingly sophisticated arms, the massive and unsolved problem of global poverty and the massive and growing problem of environmental destruction.

Slowing down, querying inquiry, can help people to manage and see the effects of change on us severally and collectively. And what would we lose if we pause?

It is important for educators to remember that the analogy of bringing light to darkness collapses if we want to learn to live with the fear of the unknown by being still in darkness. The unknown that is feared is always less dark and less scary for stillness. Sometimes one needs only time to gain understanding, and experiences that are free – but may be confronting.

Just because there is activity, does not mean there is progress. Just because we are inquiring and researching does not mean we are gaining deep understanding.

Humanity should be able to live with mystery without feeling uneasy. It is important to ask, when is it okay not to know?

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Mohan was a high school teacher for 26 years. He is currently Academic Leader at Potentia Tutoring, a lecturer in education at university and author. He is also CEO of the Australian and Global tutoring associations.
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