The world is full of little things, repeating things, incessant things, that you don’t notice. Until one day you do, and then it becomes impossible to stop noticing them. One of these things that I’ve recently been unable to stop noticing is the fear, expressed by parents and teachers alike in a variety of situations, that children might be “confused” by something, and a desire to circumvent that confusion by limiting their exposure to the world.
What’s So Bad about Being Confused?
You heard this a lot during the gay marriage debate. Children will be confused by the concept of two mommies and two daddies. How will they make sense of it? You hear it when someone wants to raise their child bilingual. Won’t they be confused by being exposed to two languages at once?
There are essentially two ways to cope with the fact that life is more or less mind-boggling.
Children very might be confused. I know I often am. But the question that remains unasked and unanswered is this: what’s so bad about confusion?
The world is a confusing place. It’s ridiculous to pretend that it’s not. It’s full of contradictions and absurdities. As one of my favorite thinkers, G.K. Chesterton, was fond of saying, man himself is a paradox.
There are essentially two ways to cope with the fact that life is more or less mind-boggling: to try not to think about it, or to accept confusion as a natural step in the learning process. Confusion precedes thought. It demands resolution. It is when we are confused that we do our best thinking to try to make sense of whatever it is that is puzzling us. Does anyone imagine that Newton felt no confusion as he struggled with the laws of gravity, or that the general theory of relatively didn’t originate in Einstein’s confusion at trying to understand the universe?
If you ask me, we all could do with a little more confusion, and children especially. The confused child is forced to consider the world. The child who feels certainty in all his views can ignore anything that doesn’t conform to them, for here certainty begins, thought ceases. The real danger is not confusion, but too much clarity, too much certainty about the world. It is always the really confident people who are the most dangerous, and this is because they have no room to hear other points of view or consider that they might be mistaken. To quote Chesterton again, “Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.”
When there’s no confusion in your views, you fall into dogma. You become unable to see the other side of an argument. Everything becomes stark black and white. It’s when we are confused that we’re forced to sit down and think, to try to figure things out. That’s when progress is made. That’s when growth happens. People don’t give children enough credit.
Progress from Confusion
It’s good to have convictions; I am certainly not arguing for nihilism. But it’s also good to have those convictions challenged, continually.
There’s a distinction to be made here. The kind of confusion I’m talking about is not that which comes from needless and willful obfuscation. Common Core math is confusing, and that’s certainly no virtue. But confusion over complex moral and ethical issues – which includes most things in politics – is the only way we progress, not only towards truth, but towards understanding one another.
In the hyper-polarized, hyper-political environment of 21st-century America, those that feel no confusion about the world are the ones who are able to dismiss and demonize other points of view as monstrous. When you see protesters physically assaulting each other, it is because they are so clear in their views that they can imagine no honest disagreement with them. Personally, I value very highly that moment of confusion that makes me say, “I disagree with that fellow, but maybe he has a point after all.”
Wisdom and understanding are things to be pursued over a lifetime, not in an afternoon. People don’t give children enough credit, for they are far more capable and intelligent than we realize. Not only is it not necessary to protect them from the confusing aspects of the world, it is unwise. Let them puzzle things out on their own. Let them ask questions, read books, seek out teachers, and try in their own way to reconcile the various paradoxes they will undoubtedly encounter as they age. Let them learn early on that all of life’s answers will not be provided for them in a tidy little workbook, and that wisdom and understanding are things to be pursued over a lifetime, not in an afternoon.
If more children got used to thinking in this way, rather than trusting in authority figures to alleviate confusion and make sense of the world for them, we might find the world a little more thoughtful and a little less violent. But certainly no less confusing.