Leah Hager Cohen's I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't), out yesterday, boils down to this: sometimes it's okay to say "I don't know" and sometimes it's not. Everything beyond that is a series of mostly (but not always) interesting accounts from various articles and studies, but mostly from Cohen's friends, family members, and personal experiences.
She opens with her first week of journalism school, when she was too afraid to admit that she couldn't define nut graf (which is comparable to going to medical school and not really knowing what purpose an appendix serves). Eventually she figured it out — this is her fifth non-fiction work, after all — but "the memory of that first class more than two decades ago remains uncomfortably sharp," she writes. As you read the story, it's easy to feel that shame, that rush of blood to the face, too."Its residue of fear and shame has never entirely dissipated," she continues. "And I still struggle with saying 'I don't know.'"
From there, the "in praise of admitting ignorance" portion of the work goes through a series of examples — personal, literary and scientific — of people not knowing things and why that's okay.
Sometimes those who don't know have more knowledge than those who do ("As Touchstone says in As You Like It, 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,'" Cohen writes). She cites half a bajillion scientists, like 20th century anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who coined the term psychosclerosis: "the hardening of the mind [...] the reason most adults 'draw back from the unfamiliar, perhaps because they are reluctant to reveal ignorance.'"
There are stories from friends, from her partner Mike, who works as a kindergarten teacher, stories from her childhood, even recaps of popular magazine articles. She all but retells "Rumpelstiltskin" and "The Emperor's New Clothes," stories in which characters know and don't know things (and grow from it).
Yet then she tells a harrowing story of a friend who said "I don't know" at the wrong time — when it could have saved her sister from being sexually abused. In the end, I Don't Know reads like a slightly more polished version of what you would get if you put a tape recorder in front of someone, asked "what comes to mind when you hear the phrase 'I don't know'?" and didn't turn off the tape until you had 100 pages of material.
I Don't Know started off as a short article published on Cognoscenti last October. Cohen's point there — just as clear, but with less ambling about — is that we need to open ourselves up to not knowing. "So much of the condition of being human involves not knowing," she wrote. "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." Though often enjoyable, in some ways, I Don't Know could have stayed a short article.
And yet, for all its filler, there are pleasurable anecdotes in these pages. One subject, Anya Malcolm, attended a school on the West Coast in the 1970s. Her professor, a notorious sexist, gave all his female students middling grades, so she turned in her second assignment under the name Adam. On what happened next, Cohen writes:
On the day their graded papers were due back, the professor plucked one from the pile and sang its praises at length, extolling it as one of the best essays an undergraduate had ever submitted, elaborating on its robust and original thesis, the supple lucidity of its argument, the elegant concision of its prose. At last he said, "Will Adam Malcolm please stand?"
He turned to her with displeasure. "I didn't call on you."
"Yes," she told him. "You did."
Malcolm could have accepted her professor's assumption that women don't know anything, but she didn't. Like most of I Don't Know, this reminds readers for the umpteenth time that admitting what you do know things is as important as admitting what you don't — but, like a good chunk of the book, it's also just a great story.
(Photo via Shutterstock/ollyy.)