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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT