Skip to main content

The three scariest words: I don't know

By Leah Hager Cohen, Special to CNN
September 13, 2013 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Leah Hager Cohen says classroom teachers are pressured to reward memorization rather than encourage inquiry.
Leah Hager Cohen says classroom teachers are pressured to reward memorization rather than encourage inquiry.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This year's high school grads will have been entirely taught under No Child Left Behind
  • Leah Cohen: There's too much emphasis on memorizing the right answer rather than encouraging inquiry
  • She says people are deathly afraid of admitting that they don't know something
  • Cohen: Our fear of ignorance keeps us from learning as much as we should

Editor's note: Leah Hager Cohen is the author of five novels and five non-fiction books, including "I Don't Know: In praise of admitting ignorance (except when you shouldn't)." She holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross.

(CNN) -- Over the past few weeks almost a third of all Americans headed back to classrooms -- from early learning centers to universities, as students and as teachers -- accompanied by the usual seasonal mix of joys and jitters. Or perhaps not.

Lately it seems we've been inundated with bad news: The nation's report card is crummy; schools are broke and failing; graduates can't find jobs. And with competition for resources putting increased pressure on standardized test scores, cheating scandals have become practically ho-hum. Among all these headlines resides a more quietly sobering fact: This year's high school graduates will be the first educated entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In other words, a whole generation of kids who've grown up with an emphasis on multiple choice testing, who've been taught that knowing the one right answer is more important than the process of inquiry, who've learned that admitting "I don't know" is a crime.

Leah Hager Cohen
Leah Hager Cohen

But the problem isn't simply with a narrowly conceived educational policy. Pressure to know the right answer (or, more precisely, to appear to know) isn't limited to the classroom. It's pervasive throughout our culture -- a reality at once daunting and hopeful. Daunting because it means real reform will require more widespread change. Hopeful because it means there's something every one of us can do about it. Maybe even starting today.

I'm talking about breaking the habit of faking knowledge in order to save face. For most of us, the fear of not knowing -- of looking dumb -- gets ingrained when we're small and reinforced throughout life in ways both subtle and overt.

For every time someone reassured us, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," weren't there ample experiences -- on the playground, at the dinner table, and yes, in the classroom -- that convinced us otherwise?

Anyone who's ever been reprimanded or ridiculed for revealing ignorance knows all too well: The taste of shame is bitter and lingering. We'll go to great lengths to avoid it, often without deliberate thought.

How many times have I found myself nodding in feigned recognition when someone makes reference to a person or book they assume I know? How many times have I been guilty of unwittingly inflicting similar discomfort on others?

In some walks of life, presenting a knowing demeanor is practically a job requirement. One financial adviser recalls how, early in his career, he was so anxious to impress upon his clients that he knew was he was doing, he'd use meetings to "information dump" -- only subsequently learning that they'd been too embarrassed to speak up and confess they had no idea what he was talking about.

A surgeon tells about the time when, as a new intern, afraid to admit unfamiliarity with a procedure and ask questions, she plunged in confidently -- and made an incision four times longer than the patient had been told the scar would be. Politicians routinely face shame if they confess to not knowing.

Remember Rick Perry's memory lapse during the 2011 Republican primary debate? It seems we'll forgive our elected officials just about any breach of ethics, but let them admit to anything less than invulnerable certainty and they can kiss our vote goodbye.

For the past several years, I've made a conscious effort to be candid about the limits of my own knowledge. As a college teacher, I've discussed this intention explicitly with students and colleagues.

Guess what? I'm mortified to report: Despite my public resolution to practice this most essential form of academic integrity, I still catch myself engaging in a kind of knee-jerk, face-saving, passive dissimulation on a semi-regular basis. Based on what I hear from others, I'm not alone. Such behavior is apparently endemic.

So what are we to do?

For starters, talk about it. Own up to instances when we faked knowledge. Initiate conversations about what makes us more or less susceptible to this behavior. You're likely to hear some funny stories, and the experience of shared vulnerability is humanizing and makes for closer connections. Best of all, it creates an environment in which all stand to grow.

My friend Lori, during her years as a high school history teacher, constantly encouraged her students to play in the wide-open spaces of uncertainty. One way she did this was by sharing her own gaps in knowledge. She'd model not just her comfort with not having figured everything out, but her delight in it. This, she seemed to convey, was where real intellectual pleasure lay: in the adventure of exploring the unknown. Often she'd assign Shakespeare as a way of getting students to think about power and status. She'd have them read one of the plays, then ask: "Who's more powerful in this scene?"

Her students, anxious to deliver the "right" answer, would demand clarification. "What do you mean? Powerful how?"

Lori would shrug and unfurl her fingers: Nothing up my sleeves. This isn't a trick. If her students protested, she'd say simply, "That's all I know."

And so they'd be forced to grapple not only with the answer to her question, but with the meaning of her question, with the definition of power in the first place, which she, the authority figure, had just handed over to them: You guys figure it out. You decide. In this way, they were learning about history and drama but also about shifts in power, and who may wield it, and how classrooms can work and how societies can work, and about the very nature of "right" answers as opposed to the illimitable richness of interrogating the questions.

This is what excites me when I think of heading back to school this fall: the prospect of bringing such generous, generative energy into the classroom. Perhaps filling in the ovals with number two pencils is important for helping us understand how far we are from achieving equity in schools across the nation. That is a vital project, deserving urgent attention. But we won't ever achieve equity -- let alone excellence -- if we don't also work to make our schools places where we all feel safe saying "I don't know."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leah Hager Cohen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT