The Joys of Ignorance

Aug 13, 2019 10:33:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf covers the topic of STEM in education abroad. He unpacks how science helps us understand the world better and talks about the overlooked creativity found in scientific disciplines.

Ignorance is Bliss

I have never seen the film Thelma and Louise[1] but I am able to talk about it a lot: an archetypal road–buddy movie remade through feminist lens. The ending, which edges towards magic realism, replicates the conclusion of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.[2] That is, I argue with female colleagues, in any case a much better film. As they have never seen Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, they are simultaneously flummoxed and annoyed which is a very satisfactory state of affairs in any disputation.

Thelma and Louise is a perfect exemplifier of the paradoxical fact that it is much easier to speak fluently and eloquently about things of which we are more or less entirely ignorant.

By way of illustration: quite recently I had an intense conversation with an advanced theoretical physicist who has an arcane PhD and has written 5 books which have been read by 5 people. I argued that at the very highest level, Physics is inseparable from Philosophy. I cited the head of Humanities at a university at which I briefly taught who had a PhD in Physics but who taught Philosophy (and, I omitted to say, was more or less clinically insane). The advanced theoretical physicist, author of 5 books, was very impressed by my unusual insight and had few coherent objections.

However, I have failed every Physics examination I have ever taken and stopped trying completely at the age of 15.

In similar vein, the wonderful President of New College of Florida, is Donal O’Shea. Donal is a distinguished mathematician.[3] Over a glass or two of wine, he cogently argued that Mathematics at an advanced level is a form of poetic invention built around acts of creative imagination. I wrote that down and have repeated it (as if it were my own revelation) to every mathematician I have ever met (not many to be fair). However, in that remarkably limited circle, I have gained a reputation as a thinker who can straddle the worlds of poetry and mathematics like some intellectual colossus.

I have never passed any Mathematics examination in my life and gave up trying at the age of 14.

Thus, I am able to converse impressively, even brilliantly, about the upper reaches of Physics and Mathematics precisely because my mind is uncluttered by actual knowledge or information. This sustains the wisdom of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895):

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.


This naturally and inevitably leads to the subject dear to the hearts of international educators: STEM disciplines. This has nothing to do with flowers. International educators, almost none of whom have degrees in any scientific subject, are able to speak with passion and enthusiasm about how important these things are in education abroad. I, too, can argue with warmth and conviction on this topic although I have to be reminded that STEM stands for, I think, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

This is sometimes a bit puzzling. Aren’t Engineering, Technology and Mathematics types of Science? We tend not to say that students should study History, the Past, Events of Long Ago, and What Happened. This is both redundant and perhaps pedantic because, in practice, I love talking about STEM disciplines with colleagues who are, for the most part, equally ill-informed about the mysteries of these subjects.

NSW Library

We are all very excited about getting STEM students abroad and are quite lyrical about the value for US Mathematics majors of studying in Minsk or Manchester or Madrid. Actual mathematicians probably know that it doesn’t really matter where you study Maths because it is much the same in Minsk or Manchester or Madrid. It is based, like Physics, on some universal laws. Wikipedia (which is always right) tells us that “Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.” Thus, it is based on principles that apply equally in Miami, Minsk, Manchester, and Madrid. Universal means everywhere.

Real scientists would probably tell us this, but they can’t say anything that we can understand. I’m also told that real scientists do not use the term STEM unless they are talking about Botany.

As we all know, all scientists are incomprehensible to anyone except another incoherent figure in a white coat carrying something vaguely menacing in a test tube, which brings me logically to the subject of The Mad Scientist.

The Mad Scientist

This is a figure much loved by those of us who know nothing. Ominous Asian figures like Dr Fu Manchu[4] populate our imaginations: “I shall invent an entirely new torture, against which there is no possible defense”[5] and, of course, the fiendish Dr. No who lost both hands while playing with nuclear stuff ( “Ah Mr Bond!”): “Unfortunately I misjudged you. You are just a stupid policeman whose luck has run out.”[6] Drs. No and Fu Manchu are involved in dastardly plots beyond the imagination of any Sociology major.

Remember Dr Strangelove? Portrayed by the late, great Peter Sellers, he was the evil genius in love with atomic destruction.[7] Then there was Dr Jekyll[8] and, one of the best, Dr Frankenstein[9]: a perfect combination of Victorian mad scientist, genius type, foreign, and dastardly (may be Jewish but not Irish).

By the way, all evil politicians from Caligula to Trump have science degrees!

(Editor’s note: Like much else in this “essay” this is not true).

Why then are we encouraging scientists to study abroad so that they can learn to make better monsters?

(Editor’s note: the question is both hysterical and rhetorical. No correspondence please).

The Victorian Age

Thinking about Dr. Frankenstein and his sidekick led me towards pondering the Victorian Age (1837–1901 or something like that). Like all students everywhere, I know that actually reading a 19th century novel or a proper history only complicates things. The Victorian Age is best approached through clichés, stereotypes, and widely-held assumptions. Queen Victoria was “not amused” but chubby Dickensian figures like Sam Pickwick were both amused and jolly. Some of them-think Ebenezer Scrooge-took some time to get amused.[10]

Nature was lovely.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
—“Daffodils” William Wordsworth (1807)

London was a cesspit: a “City of Dreadful Night” (1874), according to the poet James Thompson:

The City is of Night; perchance of Death
But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning's fragrant breath
After the dewy dawning's cold grey air:
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity
The sun has never visited that city…

In Rural Rides (1830) by English journalist and radical champion of the countryside, William Cobbett, it becomes “The Great Wen”: a hideous infected cyst growing upon the body of the nation.

These stereotypical constructions shape our view of Victorian London as long as we studiously avoid reading Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” (1807):

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning

Thus, until recently my view of the Victorian Age was clear, uncluttered, simple. It demonstrated one of the joys of ignorance: things are easier.

The Wonders

I have to admit however that things got more complicated recently when I read a book (a real one with pages) which quite upset and subverted my view of the Victorian age. Let me shamelessly recommend The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age (2019).[11] The author, John Woolf, writes:

…The Victorian Age of prudes and prigs, scientists and industrialists is reconfigured into the Age of the Freak: an era where wonders reigned supreme, where kings, queens, presidents and commoners came to gaze at nature’s great diversity. This is an age that marvelled at the marvellous and wondered at the wondrous; an age when the freak show was never a marginal affair, but instead central to Victorian society.

Thus, the work of our children teaches us that our preconceptions and assumptions are almost always, if not entirely wrong, partial distortions of a much more complex reality. We are forced to re-evaluate the worlds we thought we understood. John Woolf tells us that Victoria was indeed “amused” and there are other stories that subvert that which we thought we knew:

… Queen Victoria endorsed, patronized and met the great freak performers (and circus celebrities) of the century, as did numerous American Presidents. … the freak performer was there bringing wonder, joy and disruption to the Victorian world. This is a story that brings the performers centre stage, exploring their lives, triumphs and tragedies, giving a voice to those frequently silent performers, who created the wondrous age of the freak.

That’s the trouble with reading stuff. You have to listen to other voices and see things from alternative perspectives. It makes it harder to sustain cherished prejudices and lifelong misconceptions. It makes it harder to talk nonsense about History, Physics, Mathematics, and the Victorians.

Thomas Gray in “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1747) precisely signifies the problem of wisdom and the joy of ignorance:

Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise. …
where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Bertolt Brecht agrees with Gray’s collocation of ignorance and bliss when he asserts that: “The happy man is he who has not heard the disastrous news.”[13] Joy is a kind of stupidity or, at least, the absence of information.

Books mess you up. They make us less certain, less easily fluent because we recognize the multi-layered nature of the world. We hear other voices, and this gives us pause; tongue-tied by knowledge.


[1] Directed Ridley Scott, 1991.
[2] Directed George Roy Hill, 1969.
[3] Donal is a prolific author of intelligent articles that are not about mathematics which means I can understand them. He has also written widely on mathematics and with two colleagues was awarded the coveted Steele prize by the American Mathematical Society. His brother, Stephen O’Shea, is a marvelous historian, journalist, and lecturer. He gave a memorable talk to CAPA’s students in London. His latest remarkable book is The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond (2017). This is a family with an unreasonable and unfair share of creativity, brains, and talent.
[4] Dr Fu Manchu was the villain of a series of novels by Sax Rohmer published between 1913 and 1959. He also appeared in a number of subsequent films.
[5] From the film The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, 1980, directed by Peter Sellers, Piers Haggard, and Richard Quine.
[6] Dr. No, (1962), director Terence Young.
[7] Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964, director Stanley Kubrick.
[8] Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886.
[9] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818.
[10] Samuel Pickwick is the eponymous protagonist of The Pickwick Papers, 1836. Scrooge undergoes his transformation in A Christmas Carol, 1843.
[11] John Woolf, The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age, London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2019.
[12] London: R. Dodsley, 1747.
[13] Bertolt Brecht, “To Those Born Later,” 1940.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education