“One knows that which one thinks one knows less than that which one knows one does not know.”
Nicolas of Cusa, 1444-45
Ever tried so hard to solve a problem that you thought your head would explode? You're not alone. Sometimes our obsession to figure something out gets in our way of finding the answer.
George Polya, a celebrated mathematician who pioneered the field of multi-dimensional geometry, was concerned with the state of mathematics education. To contribute to better teaching methods, he wrote a classic book, "How to Solve It", in 1944. In it, Polya repeated this admonition: "Look at the unknown." Stop trying to solve it, at least for a while. Just look at it, sit with it. Give it your mindful attention. Let it sink in. Admire it! Then compare it to other unknowns, other problems. How were those problems solved? How might those solutions apply to this problem? Polya's wisdom generalizes to all forms of problem-solving, within and beyond mathematics. Though Polya might not have described it this way, his method can be characterized as contemplative and meditative.
I set up a blackboard in the courtyard of the University Religious Center at the University of Southern California. I invited students, staff, and faculty to write down "unknowns" from any or all disciplines. Participants are invited to use a color of chalk not yet used for other initial "unknowns". If a contributor sees an "unknown" on the board that is reminiscent of another "unknown", even from an entirely different academic discipline, they are invited to write it down with the same color of chalk, with a line connecting it to the "unknown" that inspired it. If the connection between "unknowns" seems a bit tenuous, there's no worry - the contributor can add it to the board, with a line to the one that inspired it, and see where the conversation leads - and later see if others add "unknowns" that relate to that addition. Contributors can take pictures of their additions and post them with comments at #lookattheunknown on social media.
Contributions so far, in 3 days: "My destiny in this world." which led to: "What is after life?" "What can I learn about my religion from non-practitioners?" which led to: "What can I learn from your religion?"
(PS: I hope others copy this idea at other schools, churches, etc., and post their results at #lookattheunknown !)