One of the clearest, most fundamental quotes I’ve ever heard on the subject of knowledge was uttered by Plato:
“This I know – that I know nothing”
It may have been said by Socrates, or Democritus, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve seen similar quotes attributed to both of them. George Santayana expanded on this when he said:
“The wisest mind has something yet to learn.”
There is so much to learn, and not enough time to learn it. I’ve said before that I try to learn something new every day. So, I have always tried to live my life on the assumption that I am perpetually a student. One of the reasons I blog on the subject of atheism is because I feel I’m only on the cusp of learning exactly what atheism is, but more importantly, what atheism means, and what its potential is for the human condition, especially mine. So I write about those things that strike my fancy, matters that I want to explore, and learn more about. At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t write for others, I write for myself. The process of putting my thoughts down on
paper the computer screen is cathartic, and synaptically fruitful. I force myself to organize my thoughts, and in the process, I focus on the heart of whatever matter I’m writing about in a way that clarifies and sharpens my understanding of it. Sometimes I feel that when I’m done, my brain feels stronger, much like when I lift weights, my muscles gain tone and strength. So for me, blogging is a way to increase my knowledge and understanding.
Lately I’ve been getting this sense that I’m no longer a student, and I don’t know what to make of it. I guess it’s a natural progression in the process of learning, that as we gain more and more knowledge on a subject, the natural inclination is to pass it on. So I feel that that is exactly what I’m doing, to a certain extent, anymore. I’m passing on what I know to others, and I’m finding that I enjoy it.
I’m not saying that I’ve learned everything there is to know about atheism, and that I‘m no longer a student. That would clearly be wrong. As the above quotes imply, I’ll probably die having touched on only a small portion of the knowledge out there. But I’ve noticed in debating or commenting on the subject, a newfound confidence in my ability to hold my own. Where I used to have trepidations about jumping into a discussion, I now feel knowledgeable enough to plow right in. I still get my head handed to me on occasion, metaphorically speaking, but it doesn’t bother me, nor does it stop me. I noticed this recently when discussing the subject on a Usenet group (for those who know me, the same one I had my “a ha” moment on that I refer to here) and I found that as I wrote, my confidence and my ability to convince others had increased a good bit. In short, I felt what I imagine a teacher feels when she is able to impart a particular sense of knowledge to her students, and feels that she has succeeded, in some small way, in accomplishing her mission.
A good teacher, I presume, knows that he doesn’t know everything. A good teacher knows that he can learn something, no matter how small or insignificant, from his students. A good teacher doesn’t get smug, feeling that he has reached the pinnacle of knowledge, that there is nothing new that he can learn.
Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those who do.
As funny as that is, there’s a grain of truth in it. The know-it-all is annoying, because you know he can’t be taught anything new. I try to keep an open mind, and accept that my knowledge is provisional, that it can be replaced with new knowledge when appropriate. This is actually one of the tenets of critical thinking – the ability to shed knowledge, or beliefs, when better knowledge shows up. And critical thinking is at the heart of atheism.
So I guess in some sense I’m now a teacher. And still a student. The line between the two is hazy, but that’s OK. I can be learning and teaching at the same time, and as a result, become a better person for it.
By now you’ve figured out that I’ve been perusing my Quotationary. Robert Reich once said:
There are two kinds of people: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.
I strive to be one of the former.