Yesterday we spent some enjoyable time in the centre of London visiting the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for one of their lunchtime lectures.
These are free lectures and can often provide an entertaining and enlightening session.
We’d chosen to attend this one having heard John Lloyd speaking on Desert Island Discs recently. During the BBC programme he said that after his great successes producing “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, “Blackadder” and “Spitting Image”, after ten years of effort and hard work, he suddenly found that he couldn’t see the point of anything any more. He felt as though he was a failure even though he knew he wasn’t. After all, he’d got a house full of Bafta trophies to indicate that people respected and valued his work.
This depression led him to consider the meaning of life. He read many volumes on science and other weighty topics but eventually he decided that he’d probably taken this factual learning to an unhealthy stage when he found himself trying to learn a series of words in a Dutch dictionary. So what was the meaning of life, and could he find it in books, in factual information?
He said that for many years he’d thought that “intelligence was good and kindness was soppy”. He changed his mind and realised that inner contentment and a positive set of values is the real reward, and something worth aspiring to.
For us, this is a really interesting comment because it points to a couple of key ideas. Firstly that intelligence, in the opinion of most people, is only about the intellect; and secondly that we seem to value the intellect above the other attributes and intelligences that we all need in order to survive and thrive.
Intelligence is good but “intelligence” goes way beyond mere intellect. And yet, even yesterday as we sat in a room full of ‘clever’ people, we still had the clear impression that people in general equate “intelligence” only with intellect.
Kindness is a form of intelligence too – but it’s a different kind of intelligence to the acquisition of facts and information.
During his interview on “Desert Island Discs” John Lloyd had also commented on the idea of teaching philosophy in schools. He couldn’t understand why philosophy isn’t taught in schools, and he reiterated this thought yesterday.
At the RSA he told some interesting anecdotes about how his son used to ask the most incredible questions – at the age of three.
“Why is the sky blue?”
“Does God look after burglers?”
“Why do things want to live?”
“Why is there something and not nothing?”
John went in search of the answers, knowing full well that some of them couldn’t be answered, but this didn’t cancel out the point in asking.
“General Ignorance – It’s all about what you don’t know” – was the title of the talk, and this is a huge and valid point. Our lives are full of information – overloaded in fact. Yet, the things that matter to us most are often indecipherable, often un-provable. If we could know precisely what makes us good or why other people love us then we might live an easier life, but this just isn’t possible. Such is the nature of transience and the human condition, and if we “knew” the path ahead of us would we want to take it?
John Lloyd spoke about the extent of the things we don’t know. According to scientists, we’re only aware of about 4% of what is out there in our seemingly infinite universe. 4% is miniscule, and yet our schools continue to concentrate on about 0.000000000000004% of that too. For instance, can someone please tell me the point of studying European History 1870-1945 for four years between the ages of 14-18 when the history of Asia, for example, is equally as important? Why is this period more important than the industrial revolution or the period of the Enlightenment – with its two different meanings in East and West?
Ignorance is at the heart of any discovery, said John Lloyd. Scientists seem to suggest that they know everything and yet they too must look into the unknown and seek answers to various mysteries. John Lloyd reckons that science is good at answering “how” questions but pretty useless at dealing with “why” questions.
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. What an enlightened approach to learning and to intellectual pursuits this is – which is probably why he managed to achieve all he did.
To this effect, we should embrace ignorance, according to John Lloyd. We should embrace the fact that we don’t know the answers and just enjoy asking questions. It’s interesting that this man is the person behind the popular television programme “QI” (Quite Interesting) which is full of answers to some seriously obscure questions. There’s an interesting factual content in the programme to be sure, yet one of the main reasons that this programme is so watchable is due to the interactions between its “competitors” and the glorious lack of serious competition, subtly shown in the negative scoring at the end of the programme. Nobody ever cares if they end up with minus 30 or so points. It illustrates beautifully how little we know, viewers and contestants, and how unimportant that is, as long as we are interested in learning more. The real joy of learning in QI isn’t the memorisation and recall of a series of facts, it’s the road that you take in order to learn. That in itself is the real learning, and the learning that is unquantifiable.
John Lloyd said that as a parent “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we pretended that children are sent to teach us and not vice versa?” If only we could all try and see it like that – parents and teachers alike. He said something that we wholeheartedly agree with – that the mark of a good teacher is the number of questions elicited from a child for which we don’t have an answer.
“Why is the sky blue?” Well we could answer that to an extent but then we could ask the child a question in return – “Is it really blue?” “If it is blue, is it blue all the time?” “How does it make you feel when you see the blueness of the sky?” “Are clouds really white?” “Where does the sky finish?”
Ignorance is indeed at the heart of any discovery and that includes a discovery about ourselves.
Let’s look at those questions that the young Harry Lloyd asked his father nearly two decades ago. Are they still as relevant today as they were then? Would a ten year old ask the same questions? We fear not.
Why on earth do we have an education system that prevents children from asking these and other questions until they have finished their formal schooling? Why should they have to return to these questions in adulthood rather than consider them as part of their learning throughout life? Why do we insist on concentrating on the 0.00000000004% of factual learning rather than embracing the glorious ignorance of not knowing? Is there a possibility that if all children were encouraged to ask those questions posed by a three year old throughout their school life and into adulthood that we might have a more enlightened world – and that in itself might lead to a more harmonious and contented life? The key to lifelong learning is to discover the joy in asking questions, and in seeking answers.
For all of us – children and adults alike, we need to look at this fundamental notion of ignorance and the fact that “it’s all about what you don’t know”. It’s what we don’t know that makes our world move forward. It’s all about how you deal with not knowing that makes you behave and act (or not act)
And it’s all about the several intelligences that we still don’t acknowledge (or which we choose to ignore) that makes us who we are.
What we don’t know is infinitely more important than what we do know, and that doesn’t mean that we should strive desperately to “know” everything. This was a key discovery for John Lloyd, which appears to have shaped the rest of his life and his destiny. We can know just a very small percentage of what there is to know, and in order to find peace within ourselves we need to accept that we don’t know everything and neither should we expect to. It’s the not knowing that gets us up and motivated in the morning – not what we do know.
Prizes are ridiculous – I’m way past thinking they’re important. They’re the invention of the devil, said Beaudelaire.
Multiple intelligences? Anyone who has children knows there’s more than one kind of intelligence.
We’re swamped with so much information – we need to know which are the important bits.
No Ghanaian will express an opinion about something unless he has personal experience of it.
40 years in comedy and I have no idea why things are funny.
Beware the consequences of false beliefs, ignorance and failure to ask questions.
Patient, brave, determined . . . These are the qualities of a good researcher and learner.
Teacher-heros are those that say, “I don’t know . . . Let’s find out”.
The RSA always videos these sessions and puts them on its website, so look out for them there.
- An Intelligent Presenter (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- The Book by Alan Watts (souvenirpress.wordpress.com)
- John Lloyd: Creating QI brought me out of depression (telegraph.co.uk)