I Do Not Know

After having worked for several years in any specific field, it becomes generally understood, accepted, and acknowledged that the scholars must be experts in the field. People from other fields, or the same field but having different expertise, as also general public, would look up to them to be educated and get any doubts cleared. Whatever they tell, others accept as truth, without feeling any need to cross-examine the facts. What is the need? — afterall they are experts, aren’t they? In fact, that is one of the rationales behind the enormous investment made by any government into higher education. Everybody cannot be educated into every field; selected people pursue certain area of study and educate others about whatever they have learned. This is the way learning spreads. ‘No answer’ lets us down, any wrong answer spreads incorrect information.

Deep knowledge of the basic concepts, principles, and facts of the field, in which one is working,  is necessary. It is a constant embarrassment to repeatedly admit that one does not know the answer. Finding themselves in such a scenario, speakers often give just any answer only to fill the gap. Something has to be said. Sometimes they do admit their ignorance, and tell so; however, the audience encourages or prods them to make some guess, an educated guess as they call it. And trapped from all sides, the speaker — most often a student — has to give some number, some answer. This developes a superficial attitude in students and they make a habit of getting away giving perfunctory replies, without having or making any effort towards in-depth knowledge on any subject.

When ignorant about the concepts or facts that would answer the query correctly, is it really inappropriate for a person just to say — “I don’t know”, thus acknowledging that knowledge itself is a vast ocean and one has so far been able to take up only a few droplets out of it?, admitting that one had not thought of the question, and is grateful to the person asking to bring it to notice. One could promise to look into the problem and search for an answer in books, journals, internet, or ask more learned and educated people, then return back to provide the correct answer. And one should not just get away with that, instead come back to pass on the gathered information and knowledge.

There must be a bottomline. Stress and focus should always be on learning. All fields of human learning have expanded to such a large extent that it is difficult to keep track of the various topics even in any one of them — leave alone having in-depth knowledge. So it is but normal that certain details are missed or overlooked, or did not come up in the mind of the young student. Once the problem has been identified and conveyed, the student should make every attempt at gathering sufficient knowledge and information related to that issue, and make it a part of permanent arsenal. Only thus does the knowledge base expand and fill in the gaps in learning, if any.

Do you have any better suggestion?

photo credit: CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS IN CITIES OF THE FUTURE via photopin (license)

4 thoughts on “I Do Not Know

  1. Vipul Lalchandani

    This is very nice topic that you have brought into light. I think its frowned upon most in our country to say “I don't know”. I have seen people from US and Europe say it more often and honestly as compared to India where we feel obligated to say something. People here think that anybody who has done engineering knows everything about science and engineering.

  2. Amit Misra

    Once I put some doubts to an engineer, and he didn't have any answer. “Sorry, I don't know about it. But I can ask someone in my group who might be knowing”, he said simply. In about 6 hrs, I received an e-mail from him containing inputs from his various colleagues on each of the questions I had asked, and also review papers just in case I wanted to explore the topics further.

  3. Rishikesh Vaidya

    The first line that I usually write on the first day of my any lecture is “Expose your ignorance today if you want to flaunt your knowledge tomorrow!” prodding them to ask questions whenever they do not understand. I am quick to mention that the dictum applies to me as well and be prepared to hear “I am sorry I do not have the answer to this, but let me see if I can say something in the next class”. Very often I make it a point to discuss the issue the next class. Occasionally, I have not been able to respond at all. I am writing this here because I think it is very important to convey to students that a teacher is in fact very much a lesser mortal and is equally (if not more) struggling to understand things. He may have succeeded in some measure but the space of questions is just infinite and cannot be ploughed within finite time and with finite intelligence. Ironically, the word understanding is the least understood word.


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