Reconstruction and My “Known Unknowns”


In 2002, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to a question by outlining three buckets of knowledge: “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.” I’ve discussed this a few times in the newsletter, so you may be familiar with it through me. Now I Know is, to a large degree, a project about “unknown unknows” and the joy I get (and I hope you also get) about learning about something I didn’t even know about and in most cases never even contemplated. For example, earlier this week, I shared a story about a pizza place that flew reindeer-and-feta pizza to remote parts of Alaska. I clearly didn’t know that such a business existed beforehand — but could I have even guessed that it did? Not a chance. 

Now I Know is 12+ years old so I’ve done a lot of exploring of my unknown unknowns. But a few weeks ago, I started thinking about the “known unknowns.” The gaps in my knowledge that I know I have, but haven’t filled in. Like anyone else, I’ve mostly ignored those gaps; I don’t know how to do basic auto repair, play golf, speak Italian, navigate via the stars, code in Python, make a souffle, use a self-sealing stembolt, weave on a loom, salsa dance, and millions of other things I don’t give even a passing thought to. When it comes to history, though, I’ve wanted to fill some gaps. Now I Know isn’t a “history” project in the academic sense but it’s probably adjacent to it. Please, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme, and I think if I want to better understand the world, I should be filling in some of my gaps. And there’s another advantage: I can’t appreciate a lot of my “unknown unknowns” unless I fill in some of my known gaps.

So earlier this week, I got started. For some reason, my high school education never really touched upon the Civil War beyond the “memorize these proper nouns” type of experience all too common in high school at the time; I can name a bunch of generals and battles, and I know about the Missouri Compromise and Kansas-Nebraska Act to some degree. But my understanding of the Civil War is a glib one at best. And then when it comes to Reconstruction — all of the stuff that happened after the Civil War — I know virtually nothing. Combined, that leads to a really bad gap, one that has negative implications for my efforts to understand our world today. 

Thankfully, I came across a solution. Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, is one of the foremost experts on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Columbia has put many of his lectures up on YouTube. I started watching them. If you want to, you can do so here; I’m not too far in, but it’s been good so far. There’s a lot — I think it comes to 15 or 20 hours of lectures — so it’s not the lightest of time investments, But it’s a good step, I think. I’ll let you know more when I’m done — and about what other “known unknown” gap I hope to tackle after.

For now, let’s look back on the week that was here at Now I Know.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: The Real Movie That Created Fake Students: Tourism goes a bit haywire.

Tuesday: The Last Straw: A riot over… hats?

Wednesday: Flying the Hungry Skies: The reindeer-and-feta pizza story mentioned above.

Thursday: The Importance of Manatee Farts: I can’t believe this is real.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “Tending to Grass, and to Grief, on a Tennis Court in Iowa” (New York Times, 9 minutes, September 2022). The subhead: “Twenty years ago, a grass court emerged from the surrounding cornfields in Charles City. Its story is colored by exacting standards, profound loss and, ultimately, rebirth.”

2) “How a British Guild Rebuilt a Vandalized Royal Cake Replica” (Atlas Obscura, 5 minutes, February 2020). The death of Queen Elizabeth has resurfaced a bunch of interesting stories; this is one I definitely missed when it was first published. I’m glad I discovered it this time.

3) “The people making millions off Listerine royalties” (The Hustle, 8 minutes, September 2022). This is a great example of an unknown unknown — I most definitely did not know that I did not know that mouthwash powered a weird financial system.

Have a great weekend!