'Don't Know'? Just Admit It

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We've all faked our way through conversations before — whether about books we haven't read, movies we haven't seen, or concepts we don't understand. In her new book, I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't), Leah Hager Cohen explores moments in history and everyday life when "I don't know" can have a big impact.

"I think those words can be so incredibly liberating," she tells NPR's Steve Inkseep. "They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don't know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you."

Interview Highlights

On a fatal 1982 plane crash, in which a Boeing 737 was cleared for takeoff on a freezing January afternoon, and then crashed into a bridge in Washington, D.C.

De-icing had gone on, but by the time the plane was actually given the thumbs-up to get in line to taxi to the runway, more ice had built up. The copilot could see on the aircraft in front of the one that they were in that there was build-up on the wings ...

It sounds as though the copilot did try to warn, but perhaps in a somewhat subservient way — cognizant of the fact that he was the copilot, but not the captain — that maybe they'd better go back and get the wings de-iced again. And the captain seems to brush off the warning. It seems to be an instance where he didn't want to know what the copilot was pointing out to him ...

The copilot was in a less powerful position than the pilot. He seems to have allowed the pilot's dismissal to, you know, also make him kind of drop this knowledge that he was trying to communicate.

On admitting ignorance — or keeping it hidden

I think most of us have at some point experienced a situation where we're with someone who assumes that we know something. You know, you're having a conversation. The other person mentions a name, the name of a book, the name of a person you ought to know the name of, the name of a theory you should have heard of — that's the implication. And there's that moment of decision: you could either speak up and say, 'Oh, I don't know who you're making reference to or what you're talking about,' ... or you could fake it.

On the No Child Left Behind generation

This year's graduating high school class will be the first generation to have grown up entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act, so this is an entire generation of kids that's been raised in an educational environment where there's 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.

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