11th August 2011

There is an aphorism in learning that I’ve subscribed to for many years, like many of these things, since one first hears them.

‘There are several stages to learning, you don’t know that you don’t know, you know that you don’t know, you don’t know what you don’t know, you know what you don’t know, you don’t know what you know, you don’t know that you know, you know that you know.’  Long winded…… I know…..but true never-the-less.

The trick with learning is to know where you are on the parabola, not easy, or perhaps it is depending upon how conceited you are.  Most people definitely won’t admit to conceit, even though we’re all affected by it to one degree or another, and it usually takes someone looking in to tell us where we fit; therein lies the nub of the problem.  Who in their right mind tells someone they’re ignorant upon a subject and expect to get away unburned?  It would take a diplomat of considerable skill to do so and be thanked for it.  The question therefore is, how honest are we with ourselves when it comes to answering the question?

Take my personal journey through BA (hons) Photography.  I’ve been interested in the subject for many years, note the descriptive here, interested.   Many of us use that word, or keen, or some other descriptor with an equally reluctant timbre.  Why?  Because 1) we don’t want to set ourselves up for a fall by stating that we’re experienced, 2) most English language speakers follow the British way of understatement 3) because we have no yardstick to measure any gained knowledge against.  How can an individual decide where on the parabola of learning they fit, especially before beginning a formal qualification?    I think it’s possible to discard the first part of the learning aphorism, ‘you don’t know that you don’t know’ because I wouldn’t have signed up for the course in the first place if I was still at that stage.  I also think that I’ve passed the second stage, ‘you know that you don’t know’, because the decision has been made to start the course, thereby admitting ignorance.  The next stage is the toughy ‘you know what you don’t know’.  How can you ever tell what you don’t know unless a question or a situation arises where you can’t answer it?  Even then you could still be ignorant of the fact ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ because if you labour along under the false premise that you do know, then you can’t know you don’t know what you don’t know! Wow, getting complicated or what?

I admit there’s more that I don’t know, and probably always will be, than I do know about photography, so does that make my placement on the learning parabola any easier to find?  No, of course not, because it’s to what degree don’t I know.  So does it end there?  No! I have to strive to find out and to keep moving from left to right on that parabola and keep testing the other statements within the aphorism to determine if I’ve moved forward and, hopefully, by how much.

So why did I start this post in the first place?  Because I don’t know if I’m making progress.  I know, I know, its early days on the course and I’ve got to learn to walk before I can run and blah, blah, blah.  But I guess the real problem is I’m going through the stage where I’m now questioning my resolve.  I started out with a clear objective in mind, or what I thought was a clear objective, to take the knowledge I’d gained from an earlier OU photography course, my enthusiasm for the art and desire to become famous, no really, a desire to become, at least, a more competent and learned photographer and at most an accepted and recognised photographic artist.  So what’s gone wrong?  I don’t suppose anything has gone wrong in any definable sense of the word, it’s a phase that I suppose most students go through, they’re frightened of the their ignorance and the Sisyphus like task of becoming somewhat enlightened.  So the question is what do I do about it?  To keep on feeling overwhelmed is more likely to drive me to despair than encourage, but I can’t give up just because I’m finding that it’s not just a breeze and I should be awarded a first class degree because I signed up.

I wonder if this melancholia is because I’ve learned a little and a little knowledge is dangerous?  Dangerous in that it takes you to the start of, ‘you know what you don’t know’ and now you really know how Sisyphus must have felt.  Or is it because I now don’t know what I thought I knew before I started the course and I despair of knowing?

Perhaps this will all be better when I wake up.


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