The Illusion of Knowledge

The illusion of knowledge is worse than knowledge itself.

One risk when receiving a broad, liberal arts education, replete with generalist courses like “Questions of Civilization,” is that it’s tempting to believe that the two days your Civ class spends on the Koran is all you need to know. In other words, you spend a couple days on the Koran, and then move on, and in your mind you check the “Koran” box, and don’t feel it necessary to really dig into it later on.

Sure, perhaps that limited exposure actually motivates you to dig into the text in a way blind ignorance would not. But I’m not so sure.

I think chipping away in superficial, very high level way at a massively complex topic or book can almost be worse than spending no time on it at all. I’d rather have college students walk around knowing they were completely ignorant about the Koran than think they even understand something.

I prefer knowingly ignorant to superficially informed. Of course it’s possible to be both superficially informed and aware of that fact, which is the best of these worlds, but I wouldn’t place this bet on a typical college campus.

14 comments on “The Illusion of Knowledge
  • Thus far, I think Civ is great not for personal development (i.e. analyzing texts like the Koran) but for exposure to vastly different opinions. But I could be wrong, you know, two hours into the course.

    Thanks for the blogs, by the way, they’re keeping me busy. 🙂

  • You can’t know everything about everything. It’s important to be exposed to a lot, and that’s what a survey course is for. If the Koran fascinates you enough, you have the rest of your life to become an expert. For me, reading hundreds of diverse blogs each day is similar to a survey course. A blog or an email mentions the new copyright-free Library of Congress Flickr page, then eventually I encounter the same information on 20 or 30 other blogs, and the important stuff rises to the top–but it’s not necessarily the thing that is important to you. I need to know this about the Koran: if I purchase a copy for my library, what is the proper place to put it on the shelf? But I know a little more about it than that. I had one Arabic lesson from a Kuwaiti friend in college; I read a great article about the Koran in The Atlantic a few years ago; and really, that’s enough for me.

  • I’ve always thought that this was a good arguement for the importance of college — not the opposite.

    Sure, your first year there are a lot of survey courses, and you might build a false sense of mastery — hence the cliched fights with your parents over the role of UN when you return for your first Christmas break.

    But by the time you graduate, you’ve taken enough high-level courses, and been disarmed in discussion by your professor in seminars enough times, and read enough advanced writing, that you realized how much there is to know, and how little you do.

    At this point, you’re probably ready to tackle the world…

  • I’m currently a college student studying Islam, so this post really stood out to me.

    While I don’t consider myself THE most informed person on Islam, I dare say that I know a considerable amount more than the average person. I’ve read both primary and secondary sources. I can read and say parts of the Qur’an in Arabic (thanks to my Arabic classes), and I’m constantly introduced to new ideas and arguments by my professor, a reknown Islamic scholar.

    I’m curious: When do we cross the line between pretending to know and actually knowing?

  • I think, though, that if you don’t feel it necessary to dig deeper into a topic, then it’s not really a loss when you end up not digging. In other words, the person who learnS about the Koran in a survey course, and is satisfied with the knowledge learned, isn’t losing all that much by not studying the topic in greater depth. Of course that person may never know what useful information could have been dug up, but of course there will always be topics for which we are unable to fully delve into

    On the other hand, it seems as though a person like yourself isn’t effected by the lack of depth taught in a survey course, because you desire to learn more than merely an introduction. You’ll take the info taught in a survey course, and use it as a jumping board to further knowledge about the topic.

    But the result is the same for both types of student. Both are eventually satisfied with the knowledge gained, so I don’t really see the harm involved.

  • Having recently graduated from a liberal arts college I definitely understand your concern. However, I used my time in college to make my personal interests academic (curriculum development/education/retention) so that meant not only taking classes but also supplementing with hands on experience and reflections on my own experiences.

    Those introductory courses are wonderful for exposing you to ideas that you may not have ever encountered. Honestly, how many of us, outside of terrorism, have ever spoken or thought about the Koran? The classroom is a great place to BEGIN yet it should not be the place where your education ends.

    I like the analogy someone mentioned above: it’s similar to reading blogs. I get some info and if Im intrigued I do further research if not then I keep it moving. The only difference is…blogs dont cost me 40K a year lol

  • Ben,

    I think your theory is an interesting one, however I think your argument needed some elaboration. You didn’t explain why you think “chipping away in superficial, very high level way at a massively complex topic or book can almost be worse than spending no time on it at all” or why you “prefer knowingly ignorant to superficially informed”. I am assuming that your idea has something to do with your thoughts on higher education institutes as places for specialized learning but there is no evidence of this in your blog. Can you elaborate?


  • I agree with Cal above. I am well on my way to being a professional student and I can safely say that I am merely “superficially informed” about most things! I have found that digging into a subject only reveals more about it that I don’t know. In fact, having moved on from the liberal arts phase of my education, I sincerely miss the scope of topics that I had the opportunity to explore if only briefly.

    As for the “best of both worlds” that you mention, Ben, I feel that a good professor will always give you the sense that you’ve just scratched the surface of any given subject. So I guess I’m saying that if one feels that they’re an expert on anything, then they’ve had a poor teacher! 🙂 But of course I don’t mean that because it’s not always the case.

  • Ben,

    You ask a good question — unfortunately, people who are smart enough to ask this question aren’t the problem. Almost no one walks around feeling aware of their own ignorance, so for most people, it’s a choice between having at least a cursory familiarity with a topic they don’t care to explore, or having no exposure whatsoever. I’m inclined to believe that someone who (for example) got through 2 weeks about Latino culture in that HMC ‘Immigration & Ethnicity’ course is at least *somewhat* less likely to become a knee-jerk, anti-immigration, ‘build a big wall around the country’ kind of person. And this seems like a change for the better, even if that person never learns anything very deep about the history of Mexican-American relations.

  • I absolutely get what you are feeling. I have small nerd panic attacks when I realize all the books I haven’t read that relate to things I want to get good at. And I also realize I only understand half (actually far less) of everything I have read in college and before. Do I re-read or just blaze on? Who knows. This makes me want to go to grad school, something I never considered before college (and the freshman survey classes). I think this mentality in some liberal arts programs and the “survey” approach to learning separates us from Europeans who at least have very strong foundations in the humanities.
    The question that I pose to you Ben…. is how you think blog culture has made this problem worse. The Wikipedia college student is a serious threat to the future of intellectualism. How has this feeling that you have keenly stumbled upon been made worse by a newfound authority in the word of a charismatic blogger?

    What you describe is a part of larger movement that undermines traditional academics. Please forgive me, but I think Blogs and internet exchanges in some ways reward the learning that you see is cloudy overviews. It’s like washing your face with dishwater detergent. I mean, technically it’s soap, just not the right kind.

  • The Illusion of knowlege!

    ‘Knowing you do not know is wholeness.
    Thinking you know is incomplete.’

    Tao Te Ching Ch.71

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