Safe areas of ignorance
I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a skill they pride themselves on. Even just a small range of actions they know they can reliably perform well, with or without pressure. Simple, elegant expertise: tying a rope, milking a cow, walking on stilts.
Outside my (relatively small) inner circle of competence lies a much larger sphere of things I kind of know how to do, or feel I should know how to do. When I get these things wrong, or receive instruction on how to do them better, I can feel attacked, ashamed, silly.
When I was studying at the University of Chile I often watched the other foreign students with bemusement. The spunkiest, the smartest and the most charismatic would often squander the opportunity to become pleasingly fluent in another language, choosing English at every available opportunity.
It wasn’t until much later that I considered that their natural eloquence was a stumbling block. In new languages you are stupid, boring and clumsy. To those who thrive on choosing words with care, pleasing their companions with wit and insight, stumbling over conjugations is unbearable. For me, having learnt in pineapple fields, fishing boats and farm kitchens, far from the city’s insistent need for clever articulation, simple, repetitive observations were the mainstay of all conversations.
In a world full of problems, we are constantly being told to integrate, to think across scales and boundaries, and incorporate different knowledge cultures, so as to be able to make the best kind of sense of the challenges that confront us. Inside the ivory walls of academia we talk of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, where we gather up the threads of all relevant knowledge and try to line them up, plait them together, or fuse the endings, depending on our energy and epistemological bent.
At a recent round-table discussion about the relationship between transformational change and transdisciplinarity at the ANU’s Human Ecology Forum, we stumbled across the concept of safe areas of ignorance.
To feel safely ignorant about something, it has to lie outside both our core and our peripheral areas of expertise. Then what we don’t know doesn’t make us vulnerable. We don’t feel exposed. We’re curious, interested, open.
This becomes important in knowledge-sharing, especially in universities, where we are more used to jealously guarding our research domains with raised hackles and impenetrable jargon.
And, like my experience of language learning, we can reframe where we feel safely ignorant.
Inside the classroom I struggle immensely with feeling tongue-tied.
Under the tropical sky, in a world soaked in beauty and visceral pleasures – watermelon after 12 hours of physical labour – exclaiming ‘what lovelibility!’ and being gently corrected, can resonate with the joy of a child learning its first words.
So, whilst we build our knowledge and expertise, we should also perhaps cultivate our safe areas of ignorance.
You can read more about transdisciplinarity in Val Brown’s edited volume “Tackling wicked problems: using the transdisciplinary imagination” (winner of the 2010 Gerald Young Book Award for ‘the highest standards of scholarly work in the field of human ecology’)