Knowledge is a tricky thing for human beings. We gather it over the course of our lives and in multiple ways. Some is in our DNA, instincts like eating, breathing, moving away from stuff that frightens us. Some is learned, some from others, some from experience and some is created by our selves.
But knowledge isn’t something we just access when we actively think about something, our acquired knowledge guides us through life from the backs of our heads. Every decision we face, we face as the sum of our experience prior to that decision, as the sum of our knowledge.
That makes it one of the most powerful tools we are given and one of the most dangerous ones too.
Because, you see, after our instincts, the first source of knowledge we get, are our parents and after them, our teachers.
With our parents, we mostly accept what they teach us as what is, above all else, the absolute truth. And our teachers expect us to do the same, without question.
Our experiences, well they have to be the truth, don’t they?
But what if they are wrong?
And thus come(s) the danger(s)
At least here in Austria, where I live, the words you are being first sent to school with are: “Don’t talk back to you teacher”. And while my sister, the teacher, will very likely, at first, disagree with me, this is terrible advice.
I don’t mean, be rude to people trying to teach you something, or usual questions like “Why do I need to learn this, I have a phone that can calculate that”. You need to learn do math, seriously. Who else is going to teach that little phone of yours?
What I mean is, that a whole lot of the things we once accepted as knowledge turned out as believes, that were wrong, like the earth being the center of the solar system and being flat. Established knowledge. Plain wrong.
Why did that change?
Because someone talked back at their teachers, challenged the established believes and, in the end, proved them wrong.
And at that age, being locked up in a tower for speaking up was the best you could hope for.
Things are much better these days, no question. But even today our school system doesn’t encourage to think creatively and challenge established believes. For crying out loud, in Austria religion is thought at schools, a place of learning, teaches “believe this or go to hell” subjects. No matter what religion.
But what about our experiences? We are hard wired to accept experiences as knowledge. Fire = hot, don’t touch. Truth. Never question again.
For some parts, that is the way to go. For others it isn’t. Because you had a bad experience with a religion not every one who is part of it is a bad person. Same goes for skin color, or sexual orientation or whatever comes to mind. But we tend to go back to Fire = hot.
And we tend to pass that knowledge on to the next generation so they don’t get burnt. No reason to question what we established.
And I guess that brings me to the point of my post today.
Challenge your knowledge/believes
You should never ignore your knowledge and very likely you can’t, because it sits in the back of you head and tells you, you are going into the wrong direction. That is a good thing, it helps you to stay on track. But you should always be willing to challenge your knowledge, because there is always a chance it might be wrong.
If you are willing to do that you can turn your established knowledge from a danger to a most powerful tool you can possibly posses: The ability to learn and progress, to extend your horizon.
So let me tell you a little story about a former teacher of mine who recently passed and who is the reason these words are being written. He was a brilliant physicist, when it came to nuclear physics, a grade A teacher. But he lacked in other fields and I was a physics nerd back then and when it came to the theory of relativity he said something I knew was wrong. I asked him, politely after the lesson, about it and it became a heated argument. The result was him telling me he taught that for years, but if I though I knew better I should prepare material about it and speak to the class and present my view, defend my theory and bring the research to back it up.
I took him up on that and the day I did present my view he brought along another physics teacher to back him up. I did go through with it and was right as it turned out. So did the other teacher confirm.
At that point I was sure I wouldn’t pass that class, because surely he was pissed at me to call him out like that. But it was the day he earned my never ending respect, he walked up to me in front of the class, shook my hand and said, thank you for correcting me, I got that wrong.
No hurt feelings, nothing. Everything went on as prior to that moment.
He was in his last year prior to retiring and no one ever called him out on it, not sure any more what it was exactly, but something about time dilatation and subject and observer, but the way he just accepted that he was wrong about something his entire life until this point, just accepted it, thanked for being corrected, by one of his STUDENTS, in front of his other STUDENTS and moved on, was one of the most impressive moments of my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I just repeated something someone else thought of, no world changing event, but the way this event turned out, this is the spirit of science, you look at the new facts, and change your view if you are wrong, the spirit,that, that day, I chose to live by and I encourage everyone who reads these lines to do so too.
So, now I am going to open my best bottle of Scotch and raise a class in honor of one of the greatest teachers I ever had, the one who taught me to adapt my views if I am wrong.
It takes courage to stand for your believes, but even more to accept them as wrong.
To you, dear Professor, may your spirit live on forever.