Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sharing Knowledge and Admitting Ignorance

I like to listen to the radio when I work in the kitchen.  Yesterday I had the radio on while I prepared dinner.  I heard an interview with author Leah Hager Cohen, who discussed her book I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't).  The interview briefly discussed the concept of the book, which seems to fit nicely with the prior post.  The interview is available at the following link:

Ms. Cohen describes instances when people in secondary or supporting roles had knowledge or ideas that could have been helpful to those in positions of greater authority.  She illustrated the phenomenon that sometimes people in greater positions of authority don't want to hear what those below them have to say and may even send signals that the subordinate should hold his tongue.  Conversely, even without such signals from one's superior, people in subordinate roles may feel inhibited to vocalize too loudly their concerns.  (Indeed, in my professional experience and in my husband's, we've both known plenty of folks who have been fired just for voicing concerns to leaders who did not want their opinions.) 

However, Ms. Cohen describes how such phenomenon can be dangerous--even deadly in certain circumstances.  I think her point is that people in authority need to be open about the fact that they don't necessarily know everything, those below them in the organization's hierarchy might have helpful insights, and that is ok.  This makes sense to me.  Leaders don't have to have all the answers.  That is why they are not the only ones in the organization.  They have surrounded themselves with others who also have knowledge and skills, from which the organization will benefit.

Ms. Cohen encourages us to admit it when we don't know something.  It is liberating.  And the alternative is faking it, which can be counterproductive and a waste of resources to say the least.

She also made an interesting point that our current culture breeds this reluctance to admit it when we don't know something.  We are conditioned that knowing the right answer is critical.  She is particularly concerned about our current younger generation who've grown up in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has raised the role of standardized tests.  She explains that emphasis puts "a premium on knowing the right answer, being able to fill in the correct oval on a test.  I worry that we may not be teaching enough the value of experimentation and failure and risk-taking and the process of inquiry."

As an educator, I echo Ms. Cohen's concerns.  I've been frustrated by students who seem to have no interest in exploration or experimentation, but instead just want to know the bottom line right answer to every problem.  In disciplines like law, there may not be such an answer because analysis and persuasion are important in driving outcomes.  And in disciplines like science and engineering, there may be one right answer, but it may not be known yet.  In technical disciplines, it takes a lot of trial and error before we discover truth.  We cannot insist on correct answers in all cases.  That won't allow us to progress.

I think that similar points are valid in our spiritual walk. 

Do I believe in an absolute truth in a spiritual sense?  You betcha. 

Do I think I know and understand that absolute truth?  I'm not so sure. 

I really hope that I've been able to glean at least some of God's truth.  But frankly, I don't kid myself that I have it all down.  Not anywhere near it.  I don't pretend to have all the answers.  But I continue to work at it.  I read and reflect and pray. 

And frankly sometimes I wonder if we humans are even capable of comprehending all of God's truth.  God is a spiritual being of infinite power and knowledge.  We are much less impressive.  In every way, we're much punier than God. 

It seems to me quite egotistical to think we could know and understand everything about God.  It reminds me of the Anne Lamott joke I shared recently. 

It also brings to mind the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.  The serpent promised Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God.  Maybe that is one interpretation of original sin, the attempt to be like God.  I'm not saying we shouldn't keep studying his Word and attempting to draw closer to God in understanding his teachings.  But maybe the Bible begins as it does because we are to remember our tendency to try to be like God and the catastrophic repercussions of that tendency. 

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