On not knowing: the arc of ignorance

“Saying ‘I don’t know’ is becoming increasingly rare these days”. That was Elif Shafak, the wonderful Turkish writer as she exchanged views with Bernard-Henri Lévy on the slightly-less-than-cheerful topic of Misery and Hope at a recent Kings Place event. (Chapeau to the KP for hosting these events as part of their distinctive programming.)

I’ve just finished Shafak’s latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, an imaginative and genuinely moving account of a love affair that has to bridge Cyprus’ bitter Greco-Turkish divide (and featuring a fig tree as one of the main characters…). Her simple phrase chimes with something I’ve been thinking about recently, often in relation to American political culture but also more generally. This is the growing over-certainty of individualism, as each person asserts not only their right to a view but seemingly their right to their own version of the ‘truth’. For Americans (of course, some only) it seems to be seen as part of their constitutional heritage, an entitlement to see things their way, whatever the facts or the logic. The same outlook is spreading here in the UK; Michael Gove’s denigration of experts being the locus classicus.

Adult educators spend a lot of time focussing on how to build up confidence, especially amongst those who didn’t do well initially in education. This continues to be a major challenge (notably in prisons). Enabling and encouraging people to think for themselves and articulate their views is very much part of this confidence-building process. But there is a complementary, almost reverse, challenge: to enable people to have the confidence to acknowledge when they don’t know something, or might have reasoned incorrectly or jumped to a wrong conclusion, emotional or otherwise.

We could think of optimal confidence-building as an arc: you need so much of it but not more. Our current problem is that too many people are far too confident of their own position, and unwilling to acknowledge even the possibility that there might be awkward truths, or just countervailing arguments, that don’t support it. So the broad educational task here might be seen as enabling people to have confidence in what they know and in the strength of their arguments, but to have equally the confidence to acknowledge where this knowledge runs out of road, and where their arguments might not hold quite so well. This requires skills that can be taught and learnt, and I feel increasingly that this is a challenge that education at all levels should confront head on. I’m not hoping for us all to become classic weak-kneed always-seeing-both-sides liberals. Just more open individuals.

There is, of course, a gender angle here. Lack of confidence is one of the most obvious factors explaining why women’s competences are under-recognised and under-rewarded. In the Paula Principle I proposed the 60/20 formula: if men think they can do 60% of a job they’ll routinely put themselves forward for it; if women think they can’t do 20% of it they’ll regularly withdraw. Indeed, women’s greater readiness to acknowledge that they don’t know it all is one of the major reasons why they engage so much more successfully in adult learning. But it’s important to be aware of the limits to confidence, where it turns from a healthy attribute to one that damages oneself and others. Over-stressing the value of confidence can lead to dangerous bending towards a male norm.

The psychologists will tell us that the two are intimately connected – that many seemingly over-confident people are actually lacking in the healthy form – and I’d agree; but I’m looking for ways in which what we might call the limits of confidence can be taught and learnt more widely. Men might find it easier to acknowledge their uncertainties, and the limits of their knowledge; as a result women might be less penalised for owning up to ignorance. And of course beyond these generalisations, we’d all be better off if we could listen to each other better. So let’s hope that Elif Shafak’s warning is heeded.

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