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Best Of Cog

Author Leah Hager Cohen argues that, in order to learn and grow, we have to occasionally admit that we don’t know everything.(DucDigital/flickr)

We’ve all had moments when a friend, colleague or acquaintance mentions a book or a band or a news event that we’ve never heard of or know nothing about. Rather than just admitting our lack of knowledge, we try to save face and pretend we know what they’re talking about – avoiding having to utter those three difficult words: I don’t know.

Why is it so hard to admit we don’t know something? That was the question at the center of Leah Hager Cohen‘s October 16, 2012, piece “The Courage To Say I Don’t Know.”

Leah Hager Cohen (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Leah Hager Cohen (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In this author’s update, Cohen explains how the idea to write the piece came to her:

While I was flattered by the invitation to write for Cognoscenti, my first thought was that I couldn’t possibly contribute anything. I am hardly ‘in the know.’ I’m not an expert on anything. If I were to submit a piece, wouldn’t that be tantamount to passing myself off as something I’m not? Then it dawned: perhaps I could write a piece about exactly that – how liberating it can be to unmask oneself as being not in the know.

– L.H.C. 12/10/12

The idea struck a chord with readers. The piece shot to the top of the “Most Popular” lists on both wbur.org and Cog; it was picked up by Hacker News and was circulated near and far.

What surprised us most wasn’t that the piece did so well, but rather that it had such a profound interdisciplinary resonance. Though Cohen’s perspective was that of an educator, commenters remarked that this is ”also a HUGE problem in the corporate world,” in information technology, and in social situations:

ScrappyTI 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 and a millimeter deep.

On Oct. 22, 2012 Cohen joined Radio Boston to discuss the culture of academia and the pursuit of knowledge:

You can read the original piece here.

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  • http://www.justinlocke.com/author.htm Justin Locke

    As I explain in my book, “Principles of Applied Stupidity,” we endlessly condition students in schools to never say “I don’t know.” “Not knowing the answer” in a classroom is tantamount to insubordination, as it is evidence that you did not pay attention to the lecture or do the assigned reading. Admitting that you don’t know is also an expression of vulnerability, and that fear of expressing vulnerability is used to maintain order and obedience in the classroom. It is unfortunate that we learn to collectively suppress our vulnerability in this way, as having the courage to admit that you “don’t know” is the first step to mastery and enlightenment. One has to wonder if a school system or society that generally shames and suppresses the admission of ignorance (and suppresses humility generally) actually does so for political purposes, of making people afraid to question the status quo.

    see more about the book at http://www.justinlocke.com/poas.htm

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