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From the Headmaster

Donald Rumsfeld: “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Rarely has a statement been so mocked; rarely has one been so sensible.  A fair amount of the ridicule was driven by politics – Rumsfeld was George Bush’s Secretary of Defense.  But Rumsfeld was a Princeton graduate, navy pilot, businessman, and both the youngest and second oldest person to be US Secretary of Defense (and he was a wrestling champion): whatever one thinks of his record in office, he did not lack ability.

Rumsfeld did not invent the categories, however, which originated with psychologists in the mid-1950s and were utilized occasionally before they were famous.  NASA used the terms in 1981 to distinguish worry about soil condition on the moon (a known-unknown to the moon-landers) from Apollo-12 being hit by lightning (an unknown-unknown, apparently).  Unknown-unknowns are risks not considered.

In recent days, the categories have been useful.  The NASA report mentioned above contains a line that known-unknowns enable us to ‘accommodate the span of uncertainty’.  An example of such is that the school may be told to close – and therefore we are making preparations, just in case.  Of course, until recently, we never considered the possibility that all schools in Western Europe could be closed by their governments, which shows that things change category, sometimes rapidly.

It occurred to me today that people may be categorized using the terms.  Some are good at dealing with known-knowns: logical people, probably good with detail.  Others are good at dealing with known-unknowns: strategic people, probably lateral thinkers.  And there are some who respond well to unknown-unknowns: creative people, quick thinkers, probably with a high risk-threshold.

I saw an assembly in the Pre-Prep this morning taken by two able Year 8 boys.  Most of my assemblies are with the more (though not wholly) predictable audience of older boys; but the Pre-Prep boys, encountering ideas for the first time, rapidly moved the assembly into known-unknown territory by asking unexpected questions; soon came reactions the leaders would have been unable to predict.  And how magnificently they responded!

Yesterday’s lecture by Tom Clowes was about climbing Everest and facing the unknown (despite thorough planning) – unknown both known and unknown, that is.  It is important that boys, from time to time, are taken out of their comfort zone and experience the unfamiliar – even the unknown – to develop perseverance, resilience, and ability.  Perhaps one day they will have to face the radical unknown of physical or other danger.  As Tom Hanks said of Captain Richard Phillips: a hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown.

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