Confused on a Higher Level and About More Important Things

Enrico Fermi? Bernt Øksendal? Earl C. Kelley?

Dear Quote Investigator:  My favorite quotation should resonate with anyone who has tried to master a difficult subject:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

I first saw it several years ago, but I cannot remember where. So I searched for it on the internet and discovered a reference to a math textbook: Stochastic Differential Equations. The information provided about the provenance of the quote is very limited [SDE]:

Posted outside the mathematics reading room, Tromsø University

Could you find out where this quotation came from?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this humorous quote located by QI is in a book for teachers about workshops and the educational process. The 1951 volume is titled “The Workshop Way of Learning”, and it discusses a long-running series of workshops. The passage in the book has been streamlined over the years to yield the modern version. (Thanks to top-notch urban-legend researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake for verifying the citation on paper.)

The key passage is located in the introductory chapter of the book and is written by the author Earl C. Kelley, a Professor of Secondary Education at Wayne University. First, he discusses his experiences at the Education Workshop which has been hosted by Wayne for the previous decade with participation open to experienced teachers of all grade levels and subjects. He lists some of the key problems faced by the attendees [WWL]:

In the early days of the workshop, we came face to face with the problem of what to do with a hundred teachers, a block of time, and freedom. What was the very best experience for teachers which we could create? What program would best send them back to their pupils Friday morning refreshed and with renewed faith and courage to face the day? What habits and clichés of college teaching could we dispense with, and what offerings would stimulate creativeness?

These are difficult questions and at this point in the volume Kelley writes the classic quotation about confusion [WWL]:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things. So this report does not purport to give final answers, or to claim that we now “know how to do it”. We see more need for revision than ever. But we are doing better than we did. And this is a progress report, rendered with humility because of the unsolved problems we see now which we could not see before.

To present the evolution and impact of the quotation QI lists below select citations in chronological order.  In June of 1956 an excerpt from the “The Workshop Way of Learning” is used in a workshop about the “Nursing Curriculum”. The excerpt begins with “We have not succeeded” and ends with “about more important things”, and it is properly credited [WNC].

The main quotation under investigation can be simplified and compressed into a single joke. Here is an example from the Christian Science Monitor in 1959 concerning the reaction to a speech given by a Cabinet officer [CSMC]:

Stressing the importance of public understanding of national economic matters, the Secretary of Commerce recalled a woman who had come up to him following one of his recent speeches. “I’m still confused,” she said, “but now I’m confused on a higher level.”

The comical notion of remaining confused after a discussion, but asserting that the confusion is at a higher level or higher plane has been spoken of for decades. QI hypothesizes that this quip evolved from the 1951 text; however, it is possible that the joke was created separately. It is also possible that the 1951 quotation is an elaboration of the simpler gag that may have existed beforehand.

In 1969 the Los Angeles Times describes finding a hand-printed sign with the longer quotation [LTC]:

In clearing out his office preparatory to that Great Granddaddy of all vacations, a friend named George removed from the wall a hand-printed quotation, faded with age and the origin of which was beyond recall, as follows:

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. Indeed, we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

In 1973 the “International Journal” published a profile of Lester B. ‘Mike’ Pearson who was Prime Minister of Canada in the 1960s. Pearson spearheaded the organization of a Commission on International Development and served as Chairman. The hearings of the commission sometimes experienced rockiness that he tried to defuse [IJC]:

… Pearson would break the tension by announcing that although the hearings had left him confused, he was confused on a much higher level. To anxious staff members who thought this self-inflicted levity inconsistent with his dignity, Pearson simply smiled.

In 1987 the major fantasy author Terry Pratchett presents a stylish version of the trope in his novel Equal Rites [ERC]:

“Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now,” he brightened up, “while I’m still confused and uncertain, it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.”

In 1993 the quip appears in the Charlotte Observer newspaper of North Carolina. A realtor expresses his nervousness about the real estate market [CH]:

“We’re all still confused,” Mullis jokes, “but we are confused on a higher plane.”

In the March-April 2003 issue of Harvard magazine an inquiry appears about a variant of the joke [HMC1]:

Anthony Dillof hopes someone recognizes this statement: “Now that I have cleared up my initial confusion, I feel I am confused on a much higher plane, and about more significant issues.”

One year later in the March-April 2004 issue of Harvard magazine a follow-up is published in which a correspondent named Christopher Henrich forwards two more variants. The first variant is the passage in the mathematics textbook mentioned above, and the second variant is the text in the Pratchett novel [HMC2].

The BrainyQuote website has a quotation that it attributes to the Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi [BQEF]:

Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level.

QI has located no compelling evidence that Fermi said these sentences. The joke is still being told with relish. Here is an example in the Irish Times of 2009 [ITC]:

A typical discussion will consist of a series of overlapping points of view, leaving the innocent listener at best “confused at a higher level”.

Thank you for your question. QI hopes you are now unconfused, and your understanding has been raised to a higher level.

[SDE] 1985, Stochastic Differential Equations: An Introduction with Applications by Bernt Øksendal, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg. (Google Books snippet view; Checked with Amazon Look Inside: Sixth Edition, Page vi) link

[WWL] 1951, The Workshop Way of Learning by Earl C. Kelley, Page 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper by Bonnie Taylor-Blake at UNC) link

[WNC] 1957, Implementation of the Nursing Curriculum in the Clinical Fields edited by Edna H. Treasure, Workshop conducted at Catholic University of America on June 15 to June 26, 1956, Page 182, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link

[CSMC] 1959 February 12, Christian Science Monitor, “Rally to Budget, Midwest Urged”, Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[IJC] 1973/1974 Winter, International Journal, “Thoughts on the Chairman” by Edward K. Hamilton, Page 141, Volume 29, Number 1, Canadian International Council. (JSTOR) link

[ERC] 1987, Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, New American Library, New York. (Checked with Amazon Look Inside for HarperTorch Reissue 2000, Page 161)

[CH] 1993 August 15, Charlotte Observer, Realtors Fret as Office Space Dwindles by Doug Smith, Page 7B, Section: Business, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)

[HMC1] 2003 March-April, Harvard Magazine (online), “Chapter & Verse: A correspondence corner for not-so-famous lost words”, Cambridge, Massachusetts. link

[HMC2] 2004 March-April, Harvard Magazine (online), “Chapter & Verse: A correspondence corner for not-so-famous lost words”, Cambridge, Massachusetts. link

[BQEF] BrainyQuote website (accessed 2010 July 9), Enrico Fermi quotations. link

[ITC] 2009 July 10, Confused at a Higher Level of Economic Theories by Samuel Brittan, Business section, Dublin, Ireland. link

 

4 thoughts on “Confused on a Higher Level and About More Important Things

  1. But what was the context of the 1951 quote? That might be more interesting than who used it later, or the telephone game of how the working changed. What was the problem they were looking at? Who (name) wrote the comment? What sort of man was he?

  2. This entry has been updated to include more details about the authorship of the target quote and the context.

  3. “…how the working changed”–great example of how the wording changed! Right finger, wrong hand. Cheers!

  4. Donald Ramsey: Thanks for your engaging comment. To readers trying to understand the comment. The phrase “how the working changed” was used in the comment immediately above by PolyisTCOandbanned. The phrase “how the wording changed” was probably intended. Ramsey was humorously pointing out a mechanism for the evolution of quotations: typos/misprints.

Comments are closed.