`The Failure Stuff:’ Why Ignorance and Mistakes Matter

My father, left, "listening" to the Kyrenia Ship with Micheal Katzev as the first frames on the port side were put in place. (Photo: Susan Katzev)

My father, left, “listening” to the Kyrenia Ship with Michael Katzev as the first frames on the port side were put in place. (Photo: Susan Katzev)

In Sunday’s New York Times, author and New America fellow Jamie Holmes makes the case for teaching students the importance of ignorance. Too often, Holmes argues, students are taught about scientific breakthroughs and understanding, but not the important role that ignorance plays in achieving them. As Holmes explains:

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

In reading the piece, I was reminded of a conversation I had in researching my book The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. I was talking with Kevin Crisman, one of my father’s former students, who’s now a nautical archaeology professor at Texas A&M.

My father believed that reconstructing ancient ships involved embracing ignorance. With little information about how many ancient ships were built, he perfected the technique of “listening to the ship” by allowing the original hull fragments to “show” him how the hull originally was constructed.

Of course, it isn’t perfect communication; a lot can be lost in translation. He was trying to get inside the minds of shipwrights who lived centuries ago. Once he became a professor, he often allowed his students to share in a problem he was struggling to solve. He never hesitated to admit when he got something wrong. In fact, he often argued that getting something wrong was the only way to be certain you eventually got it right. “If you put 6,000 pieces of ancient wood together, and they all seem to fit perfectly the first time, you’ve done something wrong,” he used to say.

He tried to instill in his students the importance of failures, mistakes and do-overs. “It’s not something professors talk about a lot in their work — the failure stuff,” Crisman told me. “That is so important for students to get, too. People who are less secure in themselves don’t want to be wrong and show weakness.”

By listening to the ship, by embracing failures and trying again, a reconstruction would get closer to the original design. Of course, the idea that a reconstruction was ever really finished was folly. Ancient ships are complicated constructs, and my father learned that the ships did more than “talk” to him. The more he studied them, the more they would ask him questions he hadn’t thought to ask in his first study of them.”You’re going to solve one question and raise five,” he said.

Even now, new generations of archaeologists are reviewing some of his reconstructions, learning new lessons by using his methods. Therein lies the value of ignorance and failure.


About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
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