In his famous speech at Rice University where he declared that it was America’s intention to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, President Kennedy said “the greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds,” adding that “the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.”
Kennedy went on to offer a historical perspective for the magnitude of change society had experienced over the short course of human history. He asked his audience to condense the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history into the span of fifty years. Under this scenario, Kennedy noted that not much happened for the first forty years. Ten years ago, man emerged from his cave, and only five years ago did he learned to write. Christianity appeared two years ago, the printing press this year, and just two months ago the steam engine appeared. Last month electric lights, telephones, automobiles, and airplanes became available, and only last week did we develop penicillin, television, and nuclear weapons. To reach “the stars before midnight tonight,” Kennedy then poignantly added that Americans would have to “dispel old [and] new ignorance.”
Since achieving Kennedy’s goal in 1969, progress has continued exponentially. (Ironically, perhaps, with the exception of space exploration which, as Monday's 40th aniversary of the moon landing reminds us, has not made much progress.) Taking his historical analogy a little further, however, in the last proverbial "day" computers, biotechnology, the Internet, and the sequencing of the human genome have all appeared on the scene.
What Kennedy's analogy reminds us it that will need to continue to “dispel old ignorance” — or continuously unlearn if you will — only on a faster scale.