What you don’t know . . .

One of my favourite quotes is that of Manuel in the BBC television series Fawlty Towers: “I know nothing.” I love quoting this but, just like Manuel, I too am learning. And what a wonderful gift it is to be able to learn.

Recently I read a post This time it’s personal by Tony Burkinshaw on his blog.

He explained unconscious incompetence in the following way: “A total ignorance of just how much you don’t yet know for the simple reason that you don’t yet know enough to recognise that you don’t yet know what you don’t yet know.”

This got me thinking about knowledge and learning and about some of the subtle ways in which our attitude to knowledge and learning is manipulated.

When I was a teenager, my brother wrote for me in my autograph book: “What you don’t know won’t do you any good either.”

My father was not impressed and stated quite emphatically, “What you don’t know won’t do you any harm.

I think he subscribed to the same philosophy as many of my teachers: “Ignorance is bliss.”

I mentioned in my article To school or not to school, a belief that the natural curiosity and eagerness to learn I’d had as a young child had been somewhat diminished during childhood by the attitudes of others around me. That’s not to say that they didn’t want me to do well in school, for they did, and always encouraged me and supported me to do my best; but it was my best at what the teachers told me to do and what the teachers told me to learn.

Ready for school - year 2

Ready for school – year 2

Knowledge is power; and one of the easiest ways to suppress and maintain power over others is to keep them ignorant.

While I am certain that my own willingness to be manipulated and need for acceptance also contributed, an encouragement of curiosity and active inquiry would have had the opposite and more positive effect. I am sure there are others who may not have bent so willingly under pressure and whose natural love of learning flourished despite it or even in response to it. But I know there are many more who bent and failed to rebound and are now trapped by their “unconscious incompetence” in an unassailable comfort zone; not knowing what they don’t know, for “Ignorance is bliss”.

I am one of the lucky ones for, while I know a lot about some things, I know that there are things that I don’t know, and lots of them! Rather than make me a conscious incompetent, it makes me a willing learner, and passionate about ensuring the flames of curiosity and love of learning are maintained in others.

Throughout their childhoods, I encouraged my children to question everything, including me, for I wanted them to arrive at their own understandings and did not want their thinking to be restricted the way mine had been.

For many of you, a love of learning and an ability to acquire knowledge may have been a constant throughout your life. I ask then, that you do not dismiss those who don’t have the advantage of your information and your education. Many do not know what they do not know and they can’t even begin to imagine the questions they could start asking to ignite their learning. If they have had their natural curiosity suppressed and their wills broken, been convinced that submission and conformity were the way to being “good”, and willingly entered the cage and threw away the key; instead of judgment, derision and laughter, what they need is to be shown the open doorway … shown what they don’t know so they too, can start asking questions and filling in the gaps in their knowledge to regain power over their own lives.

The saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is very true.

How many times have you heard someone bemoan, “I wish I knew then what I know now”?

What can you do to encourage a love of learning or pique someone’s interest today?

How has your attitude to learning been influenced by the attitudes of others?

10 thoughts on “What you don’t know . . .

  1. tonyburkinshaw

    Hi Norah,
    many thanks for the mention, I feel quite honoured!
    You raise an interesting argument here. One of the issues I have repeatedly come across in my varied career, is that individuals are put through an education system but aren’t taught how to learn. Those that suit the system and their teachers learn well enough but many find their innate ability to learn squished out them and become convinced that they don’t like learning.
    Usually this is really that they don’t like learning the way that the system happened to put them through.
    I’ve started to combine my Hypnotherapy / NLP with my training experience and am providing learning and memory coaching so that people can find out how they LIKE to learn.! It’s starting to feature in my blog, too.
    I love your post, by the way


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Tony, Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean. We are all learning from the moment we are born – learning purposefully and in context with a real need to find out as much as we can – our physical survival and our mental development depends on it. How sad when the drive becomes “squished”. I’ll check out your blog for future posts. Norah


  2. Bec

    Hi Nor,

    Thank you for the very interesting article. I find that often I feel frustrated by others who I consider ‘ignorant’, but it takes a while to remember that perhaps these people are doing the best they can given the way society has limited their opportunities, or how they perhaps have been pushed in particular directions without the opportunity to see any other pathways. It’s a very good lesson to remember. Thank you




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