How to be an Ignoramus
Living in the uncertainty
My parents have a story they love to tell about me from when I was in 4th grade. I came home from school one day in a sour mood and they asked why. My response? I hated the stupid questions people asked in class. This was not the last complaint I had about school. Although I generally consider myself pretty easy going, I do have a fair amount of pet peeves, especially as it comes to learning environments.
One of my most passionate gripes these days focuses on certainty. Is certainty useful when applied intentionally and authentically? Of course! More often than not though, I find people’s airs of certainty off-putting and usually covering up for some lacking on their part. It’s usually men as well who do this in a way that silences female voices in the space.
So, how might we rectify that? We can start by reclaiming how to be ignorant. In the original Latin, the word ignoramus means we do not know. In his book “Quietly Courageous,” Reverend Gil Rendle discusses how we mangled the usage of this word by pejoratively connecting it to the concept of stupidity. Instead, he argues, “the healthier understanding of ignorance suggests that it is the source of inquiry---the place from which all learning begins because “we do not know.”
Sure it may cause anxiety to be in a stage of not knowing but it can also fuel us to find new ways to learn. If we can inquire from this place of not knowing, then we can unearth great findings. It reminds me of one of my favorite texts from the Babylonian Talmud, one of the earliest strands of the Jewish rabbinic tradition:
Rav says: Just before the time when Moses, our teacher, left this world and went to the Garden of Eden, he said to Joshua: Ask from me all the cases of uncertainty in matters of halakhathat you have, so that I can clarify them for you. Joshua said to him: My teacher, did I ever leave you for even one moment and go to another place? Didn’t you write this about me in the Torah: “But his minister, Joshua, son of Nun, a young man, did not depart out of the tent” (Exodus 33:11)? If I would have had any case of uncertainty I would have asked you earlier. Immediately after he said this, Joshua’s strength weakened, and three hundred halakhot were forgotten by him, and seven hundred cases of uncertainty emerged before him…
Joshua, in an attempt to assuage Moses before Moses dies, claims that he’s never had a case of uncertainty when it came to adjudicating the law. His unwillingness to admit doubt angers God such that Joshua then immediately becomes physically weak, loses his hold on a vast amount of teachings, and is overwhelmed. Deep learning is one of the pillars of the Jewish tradition and if being certain means you’ve stopped learning, it’s an affront to the Divine. When I read this text, I see the Rabbis of the Talmud teaching the valuable lesson that to be humble and say “not sure” is actually a great strength.
There is something supremely valuable in being able to admit that you don’t actually know something. Whether you’re a teacher, a business person, or a leader in some capacity, something changes when you claim ignorance. It illustrates your ability as a leader and a teacher. It shifts the power dynamics in your team so that you realize you’re all in this together. While anxiety producing and jarring at first, holding our uncertainty also provides a perfect opportunity to always be on the journey of learning.