(AP File Photo)

It’s now common practice for colleges to require instructors to discuss with their students, on the first day of class each semester, the fundamental principle of academic integrity – a perfidious little phrase, not only because it fancifies a simple ideal (be honest), but because in so doing, it’s emblematic of the very culture that fosters fraudulence in the first place: the too-often obfuscating, gate-keeping, stratifying milieu of higher education.

As an outsider in the academy, I’ve witnessed the effects of this system on students and colleagues alike. I’ve seen young writers contort their prose into incomprehensibly pretentious muddles, all in a disastrous bid to sound more erudite than they are. I’ve seen peers blush pink to the rims of their ears as they struggle to cover for lack of familiarity with a text or theory mentioned by a senior scholar. But initially I failed to connect these phenomena with the exigencies of addressing academic dishonesty.

Dutifully, then, on the first day of class, I’d follow the mandate in rote fashion. I’d identify the proper ways to cite sources, to acknowledge allowable collaboration, to quote and to paraphrase. I’d itemize the more obvious forms of plagiarism and cheating. During which, the students’ eyes would somehow manage simultaneously to glaze over and flicker with a combination of resentment and anxiety: the former triggered by finding themselves subjected to disciplinary tskings before they had so much as uncapped their pens; the latter triggered by being asked to envision how easily, unless they maintained constant vigilance, they risked morphing into perpetrators of these crimes. Talk about starting the semester on a high note.

I do not know is a phrase which becomes us.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile: Or, Treatise on Education

I started to wonder why academic integrity presented so rampant a problem in the traditional college environment. If people regularly feel they must resort to dishonesty, doesn’t that suggest they perceive honesty as bearing an untenable cost? What would happen, I wondered, if I could eliminate that perceived cost, at least within the small community of my own classroom?

So instead of going over the policy handbook with students, I now spend part of the first class telling them about my friend Mary.

“My friend Mary,” I say, “is the bravest person I know. She’s been an English teacher for ages, three or four decades. She’s really well-read, incredibly smart. But what makes her uncommonly brave is what she does when she’s having a conversation and the other person mentions a book or author in that way that assumes she’s familiar with the work.”

I look around the classroom. “You know what I’m talking about, right?”

They look back blankly.

“You know when you’re with people you want to impress, people you find a little intimidating? Maybe you’re feeling kind of dumb, like you don’t really belong with them. You’re worried you’ll be found out? And somebody mentions a writer or the title of a book in this tone like, ‘Naturally you know what I’m talking about.’ And even though you have no clue, you do that little thing where you narrow your eyes and purse your lips and give this thoughtful nod.”

By now some of the students are grinning; a few nod their own heads knowingly.

“You know what Mary does in that situation?”

They’re quiet, alert.

“She says, ‘I don’t know that book.’ She says, ‘I’ve never heard of that person you named.’”

Sometimes here one or two students will laugh out loud – not so much because they find it funny, I think, as out of pure relief. The shoulders of everyone in the room visibly drop an inch.

“The first time I ever witnessed Mary do that,” I continue, “I swore to myself I’d follow her example, I’d be that brave. Guess how I’ve done?”

They raise their eyebrows, half-hopeful, half-leery.

“Not that great,” I confess. “It’s ridiculous! I still do it sometimes! Less often, but yes – from time to time, I still catch myself faking it!”

Then I ask them why they think this is.

And so we talk about fear – my fear, their fear, all of our fear. We lay it out on the seminar table: the big, heavy animal body of our collective fear. It’s usually sleeping by then, so we’re able to talk freely, prod it a little, rearrange its tail, even stroke its fur and comb out some of the mats. We talk about which environments tend to nourish that fear, in which situations we feel most at its mercy. We notice that academia is one of its natural habitats, and we discuss what we can do to make our own environment less hospitable to it. We pledge to start by committing to bravery in the tradition of Mary: we pledge, at least within the enclosure of our classroom, to own our limits without apology, to be forthright about what knowledge we lack.

Fear engenders lying. If we want our colleges and universities to be bastions of academic integrity, we need to look honestly at the ways they might encourage fakery by stoking fear. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Émile: Or, Treatise on Education,” the philosopher writes, “I do not know is a phrase which becomes us.” Too often we fear uttering these words, convinced that doing so will diminish us, will undermine our status and block our advancement.

In fact these words liberate and empower. So much of the condition of being human involves not knowing. The more comfortable we become with this truth, the more fully and unabashedly we may inhabit our skins, our souls, and – speaking of learning – the more able we become to grow.

Listen to Leah Hager Cohen on Radio Boston discussing the culture of academia and the pursuit of knowledge:

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Phyllis Craine

    This is also a HUGE problem in the corporate world, fortunately for me I work in a legal area so the ethical issue for me is clear, e.g. there have been many times someone will ask me a legal question that is out of my experience and training and I just have to admit I can’t answer their question because I don’t know the answer. But most of the time what happens is people either won’t admit they don’t know or, they spout off some untested assumption as a fact which is even worse.

  • Jeff Keegan

    I coined a phrase for this very phenomenon: “taking the juice for free”


    This is actually an original phrase from me (Jeff Keegan), that I coined on September 20, 2001. I had just had a dream where at one point I was sitting down with some guy and his two kids. He mentioned some sports game that he wished he’d been able to go to, and for some reason I kinda nodded like I’d been there. “Really?! How was it?!” he asked, and like an idiot I had to wade through my lie.

    He was interested or enthused because of something I pretended to know about, share, or recognize, but I didn’t (however offhandedly I had claimed to). His juices got flowing about the conversation because he thought I had something interesting to contribute that he appreciated. I didn’t, and I hadn’t earned that enthusiasm/interest.

    I was taking the juice for free.

    The strangest part about this phrase, once we started using it, people would confess to this casual lying more easily. Since there was a less-harsh term than “lie”, it was easy to say “ok, I admit it, I was taking the juice for free – I have no idea what you’re talking about”, and there’s less pretending going on now! Also, people (not wanting to take the juice for free) will be honest about saying things like “Ok, I don’t know what blahblahblah is…”, rather than nodding their heads through a long boring discussion.

    • Jane Doe

      That feels forced.

  • JT

    As an advisor for students in 4th – 8th grades in a college awareness program the most common hurdle is to get the students to ask for help to say “I do not know”. For all the same same reasons mentioned above,they do not want to be “exposed”, they have a fear that they will look “silly” or “stupid” in front of their peers. I often find students work and attitude improve dramatically when they learn to ask for help because they do not know or understand their school work.

  • jocarreno

    The corollary is to have the decency not to be rude about people when they tell us that they do not know something

  • Adam Rubin

    It is also important to teach children how to say “I don’t know”… as emphasized by Annaka Harris via her project on Kickstarter:

  • christopherbiscardi

    Hi Leah,

    I’m coming here from Hacker News
    where there was a discussion in the comments about how your first paragraphs could have been written with “fewer $5 words”.

    I just wanted to thank you for renewing my interest in articulating with a more exacting vocabulary. I adjusted my tone when I was younger due to the derisive reactions I received when I spoke, but your writing has inspired me to pursue a mastery of the English language once again.

    Thank you.

    • snowman41

      It appears to me that Leah Cohen’s use of “$5 Words” within the first paragraphs is to create a contrast with his down-to-earth manner when he is talking to his students at the end of her article. Not that dedicating time to fostering a better vocabulary is a bad thing, it is commendable. I believe that it is great that you gained inspiration from this article.
      Good Luck.

    • grizsitz

      I think as some do over in HN that she’s doing it on purpose, subtly trying to show how it just distracts from the point

      • christopherbiscardi

        I don’t deny the possibility that it was a purposeful contrast, however, I did not find it distracting to read at all. In fact, it added additional insight for me, which may be where my interpretation is coming from.

        As I am interpreting it the words mean exactly what they should, and even later in the writing, the words used are no more, no less than what is needed to convey the point concisely.

  • sixd

    Willing learner, flexible open mind = I don’t know, but I can find out!

  • Terrence Andrew Davis
  • stephanie

    this is a simple and beautiful piece–thank you!! i plan to read it to my children tonight.

  • ScrappyT

    Thank you! The inability of people to admit their own ignorance is a huge problem that ends up perpetuating ignorance because people stick to their guns rather the educating themselves. I resolved awhile back to admit when I do not know something and not rely on guesses or vague recollections. I have had mixed results due to my own insecurities, but hopefully this article will renew my commitment.

    I also think that part of the problem is the internet age and the deluge of information. I will often respond, for example, that I am familiar with a certain band when my friend asks me. Only later do I realize that while I have read a little about them on a blog or seen their name mentioned places, I have never even heard their music. The name rang a bell, but really I knew nothing. I think more and more of us have mile wide and inch deep knowledge of many topics. Or ten miles wide an a millimeter deep.

  • razorfish

    FIrst things first-in your opening paragraph, you mean “principle,” not “principal.” Apart from that, I’m not sure whether you intend this piece to be taken seriously or you’re pioneering some new form of turgid, humorless satire and you actually wrote all the comments, too. I’ve read everything, of course, so this is not a problem for me. No, wait, I haven’t read Rousseau’s “Emile: Or, Treatise on Education.” Also, now that I think of it, I haven’t read anything by Jacques Derrida, at least not all the way through. There, see how easy that was?

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  • David

    this article has a good thesis. However it would be much more useful and FAR less annoying if the author didn’t use so many humongous words. As a graduate from a top 5 university, I understand nearly all of these words, but on the whole, they completely distract from the point the author is trying to make. I probably comment on one out of every 250 articles I read, and I felt so strongly about this I felt compelled to say this.

  • razorfish

    Leah: I notice that you corrected “principal” to “principle.” This is a good thing, of course, but nowhere do I find a humorous, self-deprecating acknowledgement of your original misspelling. You may have missed a great opportunity to exemplify “The Courage To Say ‘I Don’t Know.'”

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  • Laura L I

    This article makes me think of the educational research work done by Jim Stigler, The Teaching Gap. He describes one culture that highly values academic struggle in their grade school students. Not knowing and having to persevere through problem solving is encouraged and celebrated. It gives children the opportunity to develop the emotional skills to press on in the face of difficulty.

  • Stuti

    Thank you for writing on something that is important, but hardly finds itself in mainstream conversations. Not just in academia, but as a society we value certainty and knowing – doubts/confusions/questions signal something that should be quickly covered. That half-baked understanding needs to be quickly cloaked in certainty and knowing, lest anyone find out. And yet, confusions, questions hold the seeds of true learning, that is deep and visceral. It is admirable to know that you create that environment consciously within your classrooms, to encourage “not knowing”. Eleanor Duckworth, for one, has written persuasively and elegantly about the perils of knowing and certainty.

  • Aaron

    I was actually just chilling out to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” the other day, and the greatness of the lyrics were in the honest simplicity, “twenty years, where’d they go?, twenty years, ‘I don’t know’ was wonderfully real and honest. The older I get, the more mysterious the universe seems to me, and it’s becoming to one to just admit when we don’t know something.