“The unknown was my encyclopedia”

Most of our knowledge is incidental and tacit. How, then, do we best design learning experiences that allow students to open themselves up and embrace the world as comprehensively as possible?

This has never been more important than today in order to effectively respond to mounting global challenges:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. (Eric Hoffer)

How do we best ‘provide the occasion for ignition,’ which Thomas Merton defined as the purpose of higher education? For, as William Butler Yeats famously reminds us, ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’

And what kind of fire should we help ignite? What sort of lifelong learning should we help cultivate? Transformative learning appears to be best suited to prepare students for the emerging global reality of the 21st century, guided by the traditional glocal motto of ‘think globally, act locally,’ combined with a focus on global competence, defined as ‘the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.’

We need to constantly remind ourselves and our students of our immense ignorance in ways so that we may productively use it to derive constructive knowledge from it, knowing that any knowledge is always necessarily provisional and principally open to revision. How, in other words, do we invite the unknown and cultivate epistemological and ethical humility? How do we educate humble leaders?

Here are some excellent suggestions:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke famously urged. “It is possible to live and NOT know,” Richard Feynman dissented in his memorable meditation on the responsibility of scientists. John Keats called for “negative capability” — that peculiar art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Debbie Millman advised to look both ways when lingering at the intersection of the known and the unknown. And yet we continue to grasp for the security of our comfort zones, the affirmation of our areas of expertise, the assurance of our familiar patterns — however badly they may need rewiring.

In an entry from April of 1945 found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist considers the vital importance of allowing for not-knowing in order to truly know the world in its fullest dimension, of using the unknown as a gateway to deeper presence and greater awareness:

It is possible I never learned the names of birds in order to discover the bird of peace, the bird of paradise, the bird of the soul, the bird of desire. It is possible I avoided learning the names of composers and their music the better to close my eyes and listen to the mystery of all music as an ocean. It may be I have not learned dates in history in order to reach the essence of timelessness. It may be I never learned geography the better to map my own routes and discover my own lands. The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.

Five years later, in the fifth volume of her diaries, Nin would revisit and evolve this sentiment in her famous words on embracing the unfamiliar, writing:

It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.

In a testament to that rare and powerful intersection of the romantic, the intellectual, and the creative — the kind of love emanating from such celebrated creative couples as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles and Ray Eames — Henry Miller, Nin’s then-lover, echoes the same sentiment in his reflections on writing:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

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