Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where phoniness is never questioned

Once I consulted a dental surgeon about bone graft and tooth implantation.  The doctor, a new entrant to the profession, gave me a lot of information about both, and when I asked him whether there should be a long interval of time between the two, he said, "I don't quite know.  I'll find out and tell you."

If I had earlier been impressed by the doctor's wealth of knowledge, I was now struck by his honesty and sincerity.  How many professionals can bring themselves to say, "I don't know", when they don't know something?  They may be careful not to misinform people, but they may still use jargon and sound knowledgeable, or say something vague to avoid admitting ignorance.  It is really great on the part of a professional to say, "I don't know" when that is actually the case.

Great people have often spoken these three words.  "I don't know", said the celebrated Duval, librarian of Francis I, when someone asked him a question.  "Why, Sir, you ought to know", the man snapped.  "The Emperor pays you for your knowledge."  Duval replied, "The Emperor pays me for what I know.  If he were to pay me for what I don't, all the treasures of his empire wouldn't be sufficient."  Someone asked Edison, "How did you learn so much?"  Edison replied, "By telling that I didn't know and that I wanted to know." 

Eugene Kennedy in his book, The Pain of Being Human, points out that there is something refreshing about the person who can say, 'I don't know'.  In friendship, psychotherapy or marriage, not to mention the courtroom, the truth is much better than the urge to con the other person into thinking we know something when we do not."

I would add the classroom to Kennedy's list.  It is because this simple truth ("I don't know") hardly ever gets spoken in my profession where phoniness seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  But there is no need to speak this truth, considering that the entire instructional system rests upon the hoary lie that teachers know and pupils don't.  The person who doesn't know how to perform a surgical operation cannot operate on a patient.  But people who cannot write two decent sentences can teach how to write – and enjoy being glorified on Teacher's Day!

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