Core Blog

“ABCedarian”- The More We Know, The More We Don’t Know

July 1, 2017

Words Arwa A.  
Photograph Fatema A.


I like fancy prose and fancier chocolate, neuroscience and anthropology but most especially, blue; the hue of the world at its edges and in its depths, the tint of longing for the distances you never arrive in.

ABCedarian Theme Foreword:

Abecedarian – defined as a person who is learning the letters of the alphabet or a beginner in any field of learning.

Whether we’re students, teachers, mothers or sons, life throws us a new lesson at every turn. Every new sunrise brings us the opportunity to learn a new set of ABCs. Join our writers as they discuss how they tackle new challenges head on and be inspired to become an abecedarian yourself!

You know that stage in your educational journey where you look up and find a bunch of people (seniors mainly, and members of the faculty) doing a heap of hyper-intellectual stuff? In the world of academia, this could mean anything from pushing to co-author an obscurely titled research paper about some new-age social theory (moral relativism comes to mind) to networking with “like-minded individuals” (a euphemism for this exclusive club of academic crème de la crème). The reality of this whole new world I find myself (unwittingly) thrust into rankles me as I, get this, scroll through LinkedIn instead of Facebook as a cure for insomnia. I quit caffeine too if you must know (but of course, you can tell that that was a humble-brag).

I struggle to admit, even in my head, that the more I learn about what it means to do research, write and, combine ideas to make something to call entirely my own, the more forlorn I become. It all came to a head that day when it occurred to me that I’ve been describing Singapore as ‘highly globalised’ and more recently ‘gentrified’ without fully understanding these words. Or maybe I do, vaguely at least. I did read ‘The World is Flat’, I reason to myself in my most intellectually haughty voice. They are, um, deceptively fancy words used to describe “Cities becoming too city-like; bad, bad, BAD” if you catch my drift.

The point, I told my parents, is that I feel like a fraud – trapped in a vicious cycle where I learn new things only to discover that I don’t know things I feel as though I am supposed to know, which makes me, in turn, want to learn those things.  It is, lamentably, a terrible spiral of curiosity and inferiority. In true parent-fashion, my (slightly) melodramatic woes of university-hood were met with all the seriousness that the Russian annexation of Crimea merits. My father said that he had had the great privilege of listening to a Nobel Laureate physicist a while back and what he offered was a very elegant explanation of why ‘the more we know, the more we don’t know’.

Think of knowledge (what we know), as a luminous circle situated within a larger, outer black mass (what we don’t know). We can only probe and ask questions on the outer periphery of our knowledge and not beyond. In this case, the circumference of the circle represents the limit of what we know as well as the beginning of what we don’t know. And as our knowledge expands (the circumference enlarges), we become cognisant of more and more things that we are ignorant about. This begs the question, why should we ‘know’ if, at the end of the day, we are only to realise that there is so much more that we don’t know? It is true, therefore, that with greater knowledge comes greater ignorance but it brings with it wisdom – the ratio of ‘knowing’ to ‘not knowing’. Thus, mathematically speaking, wisdom = knowledge/ignorance.

Still, I hate throwing about big words like some Thomas Friedman wannabe. My time is better spent educating myself about what “ethnocentrism” means. Or “reflexivity”. Or “diaspora”. Confession: I ripped these words off my favourite Neuroanthropology blog.


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1 Comment

  • Reply Tasneem P July 2, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    Ohhh, this was one of the funniest and most relatable articles I’ve read! I gave up on academia post dissertation hassles. It broke my mind. I’m much happier being an amateur academic, reading research material for fun now and again without making furious, and in my case, futile, markings on them.

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