First place — Ehren Cahill ‘18

Ignorance Summer Essay


Ignorance is contradictory and unbound. Typically, someone that is ignorant is someone that chooses to ignore some kind of information for the sake of maintaining a certain point of view (usually in a selfish manner), but Firestein has challenged this definition and claims that ignorance is meant to be explored and celebrated. Beyond simply representing the state of which opportunities for knowledge are disregarded, ignorance describes the ability for individuals to find and understand new information by questioning preexisting information.

In his book, Firestein describes ignorance as “the absence of fact, understanding, insight or clarity” (page 6), and relates this definition to searching for a black cat in a dark room. After reading his work, it seems as though this analogy is underdeveloped. Instead, ignorance is like searching for a black cat in an unlit house; as you walk through a bedroom, you will probably encounter more doors, some leading to closets or dead ends and others leading right to the cat. In life, searching for the metaphorical black cat and questioning why the universe works in the way it does will lead to dead ends and doors leading nowhere, but it will also lead to new unexplored theories and explanations for how the world works. Additionally, someone’s instincts could lead them to opposite ends of the room, leading to new doors to be explored, exposing more important matters than the hidden cat. Ignorance holds opportunities for mixed interpretation.

Early on, Firestein distinguishes between the two common kinds of ignorance. Someone that is ignorant may be stubborn and resistant to knowledge that they feel challenges their beliefs. In other uses, ignorance still challenges preexisting beliefs, but this new information is recognized as insightful and is studied so as to find more questions and more answers. The author is quick to separate these two forms of ignorance, but really the perception of ignorance is what is altered. Firestein even claims that there is a right kind of ignorance, which seems inappropriate considering that it is really a matter of an individual accepting his ignorance.

This idea of the right kind of ignorance begins with making an observation, then exploring why this observation holds true, and finally assessing why these observations don’t always remain consistent in other situations. For example, Isaac Newton was the first to ask why bodies stay grounded to the Earth after observing an apple falling from a tree one day. After making this observation, he asked why this as the case, and, after exploring this ignorance, posed theories about force and motion work with and without gravity. Many years later, his work inspired people like the Wright brothers that questioned things like how birds could resist this gravitational pull and set out to find if humans could find ways to travel through the sky as well. The concept of a wrong and a right kind of ignorance relies more on the action that someone takes with their own ignorance.

Although this book suggests that this philosophy of exploring and expanding one’s ignorance is necessary in scientific discovery, it seems appropriate in other fields as well. Competitive markets in economics and marketing are an excellent example of this. Businesses trying to sell the same product on the market have to make their product appeal to their customers, and analyzing their customers’ behaviors and traits can help them advertise to new demographics and also help maintain and strengthen their pre-existing demographic of customers. By asking what it is that will get people to come into the store, then assessing what it is that makes one product unique, the business the store is growing its ignorance, and by answering these new questions, the business can find new questions to ask.

Going into college, many students have only an idea for what they want to do after they graduate. At this time in their lives, it seems important for them to go and explore their own ignorance, maybe by taking classes outside of their field of study. There are so many opportunities for a professor to inspire a student to want to learn more, and all will be missed if students only stay within their field. In some cases, students will probably find themselves uninterested in the classes they take, but they will learn, too, that they would not like to learn more about it. This is similar to Firestein’s concept of the right kind of ignorance; the student has opened the door to a new opportunity, and decided that his efforts could be better spent in another way.

In college, ignorance can be quite the intellectual compass. Ignorance is all about asking questions, answering them, and making more questions upon those answers, and students even in all of the same classes could leave having learned different things simply because they asked different questions. Students with the exact same degree can graduate and lead contrasting careers because the questions they had asked in school have led them to careers that satisfy their own goals and interests as individuals. Ignorance can individualize every experience and journey.

As school approaches, I am exploring my own ignorance and thinking about where it will take me in the next four years. Having graduated two years early, I don’t have much of a plan for after college, so I have plenty of cats to search for in many dark rooms. Firestein has helped me become aware of my own ignorance, and has inspired me to continue asking questions, but also to ask questions that will help me direct my journey to a higher education. Ignorance is unbound, why should we try to change that?

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