On not being frightened of Question Marks


Recently I got a job tutoring students on the weekend. Usually between six and fifteen students, in many ways the job is like teaching a class in a regular school. It took me a while to become comfortable with the position I have to occupy at the head of the classroom: leading class discussions on Saturday mornings, when students would rather be outside or at home, or even just on the other side of the window looking into the classroom rather than being made to sit in it. Not being the most naturally authoritative person it has sometimes be challenging to maintain a position of authority when secretly, I agree with the students. There are better things to do on a Saturday morning.

So the other day when we were discussing the answers to an English comprehension task and I came across one I wasn’t sure about, I immediately felt uncomfortable. “You’re in charge of this class, and much older than these students. You should know this” said a frantic little voice inside my head.

Eventually the students and I figured the answer out together, but I must admit – I don’t know how smooth my recovery was, and I wonder if it will affect how seriously I’ll be taken next week.

Why is this?

Why should it be difficult to admit we don’t know everything, when one can spend a lifetime studying even only one topic and still not know all there is to know about it? Surely such an admission is more than reasonable?

When I got home that night I chanced upon a video (see below). Watching it was one of those moments in which you feel as though the day has had some sort of secret timetable behind it, and you stumbled onto this because you were meant to, that is how perfectly it ties into the day. In it Sir Ken Robinson discusses exactly the question that had been bothering me a bit all day: Why should there be something socially unacceptable about simply not knowing?

In our culture not to know is to be at fault socially…People pretend to know lots of things they don’t know because the worst thing you can do is appear to be uninformed about something: to not have an opinion

Robinson remarks in his speech for the School of Life.  His engagingly understated wit was very welcome after a confusing day at work. He then mentions how this is fuelled (among other things) by news media. Individualism is a double edged blade, I remember once saying to a friend, because as we become more protective of individual rights and opinions, we might also become overprotective of our right to hold an opinion, just because we can. This becomes problematic for clear communication when our opinions are uninformed. The right to have an opinion doesn’t mean it is a valuable one. We shouldn’t have an opinion that’s legitimised and based on nothing other than the fact that we’re allowed to have an opinion. Opinions need to be based on something (preferably facts) to have any value. This is one of the double standards that can come with individualism. Again, in the words of Robinson, it is “important to know the limits of our own knowledge and think about what we don’t understand and be willing to explore things we don’t know without feeling embarrassed by not knowing anything about it.”

This is logical. It would create better quality communication. It should be easy right?

Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. When the expectations of others are taken into account – when you’re in front of a class of fourteen students your job is to lead it, the difficulties become clear. But I would like to suggest that with practice, this can be corrected.

Those who are able to lie convincingly even with misguided confidence are perhaps at an advantage here. This, for me, is far from a reassuring thought, and one explored brilliantly by Paul Verhaeghe here. The discussion is not a new one by any means. In the literary world many have raised it; the writer who springs most immediately to mind is Tolkien, who wrote that ‘the wise speak only of what they know’.

So, to finish off this post, I’d like to reference some others who have made similar observations about how our knowledge will always be limited, and invite anyone reading to keep these in mind the next time they find themselves in a situation – professional, social, or personal – in which they simply don’t know something, to resist whatever it is in the contemporary argument culture of news shocks and confrontations to make us feel that this is unreasonable. Lies have their uses and their moments, but when the matter is simply that of embarrassment, perhaps it is better to risk it then to swim blindly through a pool of misinformation that we jumped into too readily.

Hank Green – Towering Mountains of Ignorance

“You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.” — Alan Moore, V for Vendetta. 

“Having perfected our disguise, we spend our lives searching for someone we don’t fool.” ―Robert Brault. 

you wear a mask for so long

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes


Ken Robinson, On Passion [online video], (The School of Life, April 11 2013) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M8Hl5MUr8w&gt; accessed 30 May 2015.


1 thought on “On not being frightened of Question Marks”

  1. A BRILLIANT read! reminds me of the term “opinion peace” rather than opinion piece. If only we were trained to realise there is NO shame in not knowing, instead we hold onto the value of an empty opinion over a just and well informed one, this piece has brilliantly summarised a lot of things I feel about life. Your blog and its writing are a wonderful virtual stop xx

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