A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Author: Ben Evans, Director of Teaching and Learning, Prince Alfred College.

So wrote Alexander Pope, in the early Eighteenth Century, in An Essay on Criticism. In adult educational circles, having a little knowledge is infinitely more dangerous that having none at all. A pupil with a little knowledge may be able to bag a higher grade than one with zero knowledge of the subject at hand; but when it comes to edu-policy makers and those in positions of authority, possessing little knowledge places one in dangerous territory.

Socrates was probably displaying false modesty when he said: ‘I know that I know nothing’. However, if we take the literal interpretation of the phrase, being certain that you know nothing about a subject means you are unlikely to over-reach. When you know nothing, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and listen to those who do actually know something. Knowing that you know nothing has a certain power because you naturally refuse to be drawn into a conversation where you will only prove your ignorance. Knowing nothing makes you a neutral individual – you are unable to contribute usefully to debate, but by removing yourself from said debate, at least you’re not dangerous.

Some of us possess genuine expertise in a limited number of areas and having lots of knowledge in a certain field makes one the opposite of dangerous. Expertise, used assiduously and not for selfish reasons, makes us actively useful. We are able to contribute widely in the field in question, with the aim of increasing overall understanding. Expertise also brings with it a sense of intellectual humility. The more we know, the more we understand what there is left to know – and we may even have a role to play in furthering human understanding. Standing on the shoulders of giants allows us to see further, but there’s always more beyond the horizon. One is only able to contemplate the enormity of the field when we know enough for the field to reveal itself fully.

Most of us possess a little knowledge in all sorts of areas – politics, philosophy, culture and religion – and this is where things can get dangerous. Intellectual hubris kicks in well before it is tamed by intellectual humility, and conversations about education are dominated by people that over-estimate their understanding of a complex area. If solutions were simple, they would already have been enacted. Entrepreneurial thinking, focusing on STEM, project-based learning and following student interest are all easily saleable and have a ring of truth to them, but tend to be pushed by those sitting comfortably in the zone of little knowledge. Much as we would love them to be true, fitting evidence to suit our ideology is the exact opposite of critical thinking.

Alexander Pope had something else to say in An Essay on Criticism. He opined that ‘To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine’. I genuinely believe that everyone involved in education is trying to do their best for the children in their care. No-one goes into education to become rich or for pure self-aggrandisement. But we owe it to those we educate that if we wish to raise ourselves from the protective environment of knowing nothing, we should aim to bypass a little knowledge as quickly as possible, to get to the land of nectar and ambrosia that is true enlightenment. Until we get there, it’s wise to keep our powder dry and keep our potentially dangerous ideas to ourselves.

Ben Evans
Director of Teaching and Learning