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Educating for Ignorance Jon Jensen Is it possible that education is a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers. —Aldo Leopold What is education for? On the surface, this is an odd question because few of us doubt that we know the goal or desired outcome of education. We may debate the particulars of a curriculum or whether a given school is succeeding or failing, but don’t all of us agree that knowledge is the goal of education? What would be the point of schooling if not to “learn stuff  ”? Even the often-repeated aphorism that education is about “lighting fires, not filling buckets,” is generally justified by the observation that students learn more, that is, acquire more knowledge , when they are motivated to learn by dynamic teachers. Those special individuals who light fires in their students are, ultimately, more successful at filling buckets, upping the quotient of knowledge that students absorb and retain. I wish to explore the possibility that even this most basic assumption —that the primary goal of education is the acquisition of knowledge—might be flawed. What if education is, ultimately, about ignorance more than about knowledge? What might we learn about our schools, and ourselves, by focusing on ignorance and human limitations , rather than knowledge, in thinking about what and how we teach? I don’t mean to draw attention to ignorance as the starting point for education since seeing ignorance as the problem to be solved is perfectly compatible with educating toward the goal of maximizing knowledge. Rather, I want to suggest, or at least explore the possibility, that ignorance of a certain sort might be a proper end point, one goal, for a suc- 294 Jon Jensen cessful educational system, or at the very least a useful tool in thinking about education. It is not ignorance per se that is my concern but ignorance of a certain sort and, more precisely, a perspective that embraces the inevitability of human ignorance, rather than seeing it as a problem to be cured. Let me be clear. The goal is not to increase the amount of ignorance— we have an excess of that already—but to instill an awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and power. What this would require is a shift in focus to recognize that the basic purpose of education is not to manufacture consumers and workers but to nurture citizens of communities —both human and natural. Students must gain a perspective, a way of seeing the world and their place in it. This goal will certainly be criticized for being vague and amorphous and for not lending itself easily to specific definition or application. But it is no more so than justice or other ideals that guide our thinking and action. To achieve such a perspective, educational reform might begin not with discussions about whether testing should take place during the third or fourth grade, or whether one or two science courses should be part of the required curriculum, but with the basic and fundamental questions: What is education for? How does education prepare people for the work of the world within a culture and a place? What do we hope for in our graduates? What would happen if we put ignorance, rather than knowledge , at the center of our thinking about education? How might it affect our educational institutions to strive for graduates who appreciate their own ignorance, rather than basking in their knowledge? This notion of educating for ignorance is, admittedly, a counterintuitive idea and one that is vulnerable to the dangerous misinterpretation that we should not value education, should not strive to gain more knowledge. But I wonder if it isn’t equally ripe in its prospects for helping us rethink education in a way that is essential to the health of our culture and the biosphere. Before saying more about changes in education, it’s necessary to flesh out a bit my use of the term ignorance and particularly this idea of a perspective or worldview centrally focused on ignorance. For me, this is best done with the story of two wooden objects juxtaposed on my small farm and the contrary perspectives they embody. As I look out my dining room window past our deck to the woods beyond, I see a mighty bur oak tree. This tree was standing when Nor- Educating for Ignorance 295 wegian immigrants settled here in the 1850s...


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