Without reservation I believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. Even when knowledge makes things harder, or creates risk, or leads you where you were hoping not to go, it’s better to know, to learn, to acquire information than to avoid it. Likewise, curiosity is more important than safety. Not absolutely. But generally speaking, learning is best.
If this seems obvious, it isn’t. Take the story of Kiera Wilmot, a student in Florida. You might have heard about Kiera. Out of curiosity, she performed an ill-advised science experiment in a soda bottle. That bottle exploded. No one was hurt. No property was damaged. She shouldn’t have done this on school grounds, without supervision or permission. But our curiosity as humans is strong.
For her youthful curiosity, Kiera was hand-cuffed, arrested, and expelled from school. We should be ashamed that we’ve come to this.
As I’m about to have a son, I remember my own youth and I marvel at how the world has changed its attitude towards youthful curiosity. If you got in trouble, if you blew something up (who hasn’t?) if your neighbors called the police (they did), well, then you had to fess up to your parents in front of the cops about why you started a fire in the driveway (it was an experiment!). Then the cops left and you went to your room. The end.
We used fire-works and a tennis-ball canister to shoot balls out of the tree-house. It was stupid, but was part of figuring out the world. I didn’t know that then, but I realize it now. We weren’t making weapons. Even if, technically, we were. No one was in real danger…maybe.
Even better than explosions in my time were those summer days of packing a bologna sandwich and a pocket knife and trudging through cornfields to get into the woods beyond, where long mornings turned into evening, and a variety of mushrooms and mosses were explored, and leaf collections came home for comparison and drying time in the pages of the encyclopedia. I could not tell you the amount of hours I spent in those exurban forests. I think back to those times, and I long for it. Being alone in the woods is fun. It wasn’t the Western wilderness of the mountains; it was an hour walk from the house, 20 minutes from the elementary school. That didn’t matter, when your 12, it was the middle of the forest; and there’s no classroom better than Minnesota’s deciduous forests. (Those forests are gone now…now they’re a hospital and Home Depot).
Other times, it wasn’t so romantic. In sixth grade, at recess, I rolled up a paper bag, lit the end with matches (every boy seemed to have matches) and puffed it like a cigarette. It was disgusting. I puked, got sent to the principal’s office, and then the nurse. A stupid thing to do, obviously. I don’t think the school even called my folks.
I don’t want to sound nostalgic because I don’t wan this to be the past. And none of the above is to be encouraged. We just need to remember that punishing young adults for being curious will have a lasting impact. The kind that pushes people away from knowledge and science and imagination and towards boredom and doing nothing. I want my son to do the things curious youths do, to be creative and value exploration. We live in the city so it won’t be the woods (we’ll hit the woods together), but still, be curious. If he gets in trouble figuring out how the world works, bring him home. Don’t arrest him. Don’t expel him. There’s a difference between seeking knowledge out of curiosity (regardless of what that knowledge is), and seeking to harm others. We’d do well to remember it. Safety is an important part of life. Of course it is. But it’s not the most important part.
If it were, we’d never have learned anything.
Ashutosh Jogalekar, at Scientific American, wrote a response to the obvious overreaction to Kiera Wilmot’s curiosity, and the overall rejection of science by a nation obsessed with safety. It is worth a read.
We as a society are grabbing on to the Precautionary Principle at every opportunity. We seem to believe that ignorance is better than knowledge since ignorance involves doing nothing and always erring on the side of safety. We think this is ostensibly the safest state of affairs, but it is one which is very much illusory since it’s that same ignorance that unfavorably impacts our long-term security and progress. Time and time again it has been demonstrated that knowledge is better than ignorance even when that knowledge can lead to potential harm, and it’s every inch worth the price we have to pay for accumulating its benefits. This hard won knowledge is now under attack from those who seek to proclaim the safety of their fellow citizens and their children as their highest priority.