Do You Have Any Idea How Much You Don’t Know?


A passage in Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime spoke to me.  There is truth here.  It also got me thinking about what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t even know that we don’t know!

“In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it – what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. ‘Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?’

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.” (183)

There is so much that we don’t know. No matter who you are, what kind of grades you had in school, how long ago you graduated, or how many degrees you have, there is more you can learn. There is a great, wide world of knowledge that is out there, and much of it is not just a mytery. Often it is a case of we don’t know what we don’t know. Unfortunately many people don’t realize how little they know and believe themselves to be omnicient. This happens for multiple reasons.

Let’s face it. Too many people went through school on the social or athletic program only. They did enough to barely get by on a test, got someone else to do their homework, cheated, plagiarized, or did whatever they could to stay eligible to participate in their extra-curricular activities. Eventually they get a diploma and go out into the world seemingly with an education. They are, however, woefully unprepared to make good decisions and have a shallow or non-existent basis for what they believe to be true.  By lacking exposure to ideas and “the other,” they fear what is different.

Other people become experts because they learned something once and have stuck to it. They are completely sure of what they know so there is no need to keep learning. The problem is, of course, that the world of knowledge moves on. Once upon a time, people were sure that the sun revolved around the earth, that the world was flat, and that man would never fly. When I was in school, I learned all of the elements on the periodic table. I was greatly suprised years later when I saw a periodic table and it seemed to have doubled in size. I hadn’t read any chemistry since I was a junior in high school, and since I didn’t keep up, I was left behind. I knew the periodic table and had the accurate information at that moment in time but was ignorant of so many changes.

Sometimes the reason people don’t know is because they never had correct or adequate information to begin with. I see this as a greater problem in our world today. We heard it on a television program or a radio talk show. It must be true. Especially if that news outlet happens to feed into our already held biases. We read it online. It must be true. Even very intelligent, educated people will often forward or repost something without knowing the source. Legitimate news sources now say “according to sources” which means that they haven’t done their due diligence in fact checking. And some outlets, who would like us to believe that they are reporting the truth, will knowingly mislead through omissions and sometimes outright lies. Shows that are supposedly news programs lack facts and impartiality and are really full of opinion, bias, and an agenda they are trying to sell. If we don’t do our due diligence in learning the sources and not accepting everything that we hear or read, we will be ignorant…and sometimes very loud and opinionated in our ignorance.

The school district where I taught had a mission statement about preparing our students to become lifelong learners. Not only was it a lofty goal, it was an essential one we should all aspire to. The amount of knowledge known to mankind is astronomical. Someone said that an average Sunday issue of the New York Times had more information that most Englishmen in the 1600s would have been exposed to in their lifetimes. I don’t know if this is true. What I do know is that there is more to learn than I could possibly hope to learn in a lifetime, but I’m going to keep trying to take in as much as I can.

I read a wide variety of articles, books, and web pages.  I read fiction and nonfiction from around the world and a wide varieity of authors.  I try very hard to look at the sources to make sure that what I am reading comes from someone who actually knows something about the topic. If I am going to read about science and climate change, I am going to look at the credentials of the writer and the publication. I am going to analyze what I read and compare it to other things that I have read.

Likewise, if I am going to learn about a culture, it is best to find someone who has lived in it to be my authority. In order to understand the life of a young man growing up in South Africa under apartheid and the time following its fall, I turn to Trevor Noah. To find what it is like to live in the United States as a Native American (even though I know his arguement with this term, it seemed best here) I will turn to Sherman Alexie. If I wany to understand what it is to be Black, Muslim, Hispanic in America today, who do I look to? To those who are experiencing it. But I still need to look at it knowing that they bring only one perspective and will have their own biases.  So I read more, listen more, experience more.

I care. I want to keep learning and to find truth. I want to understand. I remember the words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hae, it is indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.”  Before we judge, let us make sure we know and understand.  Before we repeat the sins of the past, let us make sure we know our history.  As the old saying goes, if we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it.  Before we accept old science, let’s look at the research, look at the facts, and learn as much as possible.




(There’s nonfiction below.  Remember that we can also learn from fiction)

Alexie, Sherman – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Anaya, Rudolfo – Bless Me, Ultima
Cisneros, Sandra – The House on Mango Street
Conroy, Pat – The Water is Wide
Curtis, Christopher Paul – The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963
Erdrich, Louise – The Round House
Ford, Jami – Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Freedman, Russell – Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Grimes, Nikki – Garvey’s Choice
Guterson, David – Snow Falling on Cedars
Haley, Alex – Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Hoffman, Beth – Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Hosseini, Khaled – The Kite Runner – A Thousand Splendid Suns
House, Silas – Same Sun Here
Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret Life of Bees
Kingsolver, Barbara – The Bean Trees
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
Marshall, Catherine – Christy
Mitchell, Margaret – Gone With the Wind
Morrison, Toni – Beloved – The Bluest Eye
Palacio, R. J. – Wonder
Schumer, Fern Chapman – Is It Night or Day?
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Stockett, Kathryn – The Help
Stone, Tanya Lee – Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles,
America’s First Black Paratroopers
Stowe, Harriet Beecher – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Styron, William – Sophie’s Choice
Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Uhry, Alfred – Driving Miss Daisy
Walker, Alice – The Color Purple
Wilson, August – Fences
Wright, Richard – Native Son


Angelou, Maya – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Beah, Ishmael – A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Brown, Dee – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the
American West
Carson, Ben – Gifted Hands
Coates, Ta-Nehisi – Between the World and Me
Douglass, Frederick – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man
Engle, Margarita – Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings
Griffin, John Howard – Black Like Me
Hall, Ron – Same Kind of Different as Me
Houston, Jeanne – Farewell to Manzanar
Lewis, John Robert – March (Books 1, 2, & 3)
Mandela, Nelson – Long Walk to Freedom
McBride, James – The Color of Water
Moody, Anne – Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a
Young Black Girl in the South
Nafisi, Azar – Reading Lolita in Tehran
Nelson, Marilyn – Carver: A Life in Poems – A Wreath for Emmett Till
Newman, Leslea – October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard
Noah, Trevor – Born a Crime
Rodriguez, Richard – Hunger of Memory
Rogers, Mary Beth – Barbara Jordan: American Hero
Hetterly, Margot Lee – Hidden Figures: The American Dream & the Untold Story of the
Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Skloot, Rebecca – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Vance, J. D. – Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Walls, Jeannette – The Glass Castle
Washington, Booker T. – Up From Slavery
Weatherford, Carole Boston – Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer
Wiesel, Elie – Night
Wilkerson, Isabel – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great
Woodson, Jacqueline – Brown Girl Dreaming
Wright, Richard – Black Boy
Yousafzai, Malala – I Am Malala
Zinn, Howard – A People’s History of the United States

One response to “Do You Have Any Idea How Much You Don’t Know?”

  1. Wiesel, Elie – Night– such an amazing story! I read it in eight hours. I cried at parts too.

    The Glass Castle – I own it and it sits on my shelf begging to be read. I’ve tried to read it several times. The mom in the story at times reminded me of my own mother and it hit too close to home at the time, so I couldn’t continue to read it. Maybe one day I will pick it back up.

    Of Mice & Men was another favorite of mine! My 9th (I think?) grade English teacher read it aloud to us and we had discussions about it. Still one of my favorites.

    I hated The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We read it in eighth grade. I was bored to tears by it. I also didn’t care for my English teacher at the time – so that didn’t help any of it. Looking back… she almost made me hate English class as a whole. Her lessons were boring and she wore these big fat ugly hates and suites and heels that matched. She reminded me of the evil mean version of Mary Poppins.
    Anyway, back to Huckleberry-
    I just could NOT relate to the main character at all. Parents don’t make us paint a picket fence as a punishment any more.

    I have the Kit Runner and I want to read it!!

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