Mar 30, 2018

On Knowing Nothing and Why I am Embarrassed that I am a Know-it-All

My worst trait is that I am a know-it-all. I like to know things, and I feel amiss if I am not the one explaining. It’s an embarrassing trait. But I admit it. Awareness is half the battle, right? I like to know things. I am obsessive that way. 
Dicken's Mr. M'Choakumchild in the Age of No Child Left Behind

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Because I am a know-it-all, you’d think I’d be a sore loser. But I am not. I do not like to know stuff, so I can somehow feel superior to others. I just wish to know things and I will gladly listen if you have something new to teach me. 

As a teenager, I would get into bitter arguments with my parents about the minutiae of a such-and-such fact. Is a shark a fish? Why does Louisiana have the Napoleonic code? I think my parents thought I was just being a know-it-all. I am pretty sure my mom thought I was arrogant most of the time. I liked to read, and I wanted to find someone to bounce off ideas. When you're a kid, your audience options are limited.

Frustrations came to a head one night at my dad’s house. We were eating spaghetti and meatballs. I brought a book to the table to read. Boy, Dad did not like that idea one bit, and he basically chewed me out. I think I was telegraphing the message that I would rather learn from a book than have a conversation at the kitchen table. 

While my family valued education and wanted their children to have college degrees, they themselves did not go to college. Learning was something espoused as important - but, frankly I did not have good models in what learning looked like and I was seldom praised for being curious. I don’t think my parents were ready for that kind of teen rebellion. And of course, stupid disputes over where homo sapiens first originated then blew up into debates about religion and politics. I was taught early on that diverging viewpoints are dangerous.

It is ironic that I eventually - in my adult life - earned a Master’s degree in Continental Philosophy and in English - basically a degree in asking questions and being curious about the nature of everything. I wanted validation that I wasn’t just an arrogant little kid who wanted to know everything.

Now that I am a teacher, I find myself turning into my father. I know. It’s crazy, but you do transmogrify into your parents. I am not talking about a one-to-one transformation - but tics of parental inheritance find their way into one's being. I become miffed when a student knows something that I do not know. I'm my father. Or when that teacher gets a kick out of telling everyone at lunch how I misunderstood that the word lovely in the sentence “Dog food is lovely” is an adjective. Hey, I thought, I wasn’t paying attention to the lesson. I imparted the wrong knowledge. Happens all the time.

I share a classroom with that knowledgeable teacher. He is similar to me in that he likes to know everything. To my chagrin, however, he corrects me when I make a mistake in my class, and I am pretty confident he enjoys the satisfaction of catching me in error. 


Mr. M'Choakumchild - (get it?) - is a character in Charles Dicken's 1848 novel Hard Times. He knows everything. He is padded with advanced degrees. Kind of the opposite of Socrates. Dickens imagines Mr. M'Choakumchild as having learned so much in his career that he would have "infinitely known more" if he only had "learnt a little less".

It bothered me that I was a know-it-all. And I do not want the reputation of always being right. I wondered why when I was corrected in front of my class it bothered me so much and I thought more about how I grew up with learning. Ultimately I wanted to be smarter than my parents, than my brothers, than my own teachers. In Math class, I would have these odd, esoteric thoughts that one day I would know what came after Calculus -  I would discover something ineffable about mathematics that no one before me understood. It seemed possible.

As a teacher, we are supposed to foster a love of learning in our students. We want our pupils to stretch their minds and to try new things and to wear new ideas. Wasn’t it someone who once said the sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing views in one’s mind at once? I think the best teachers I ever had exposed their class to this idea of wonder.

I was joking at lunch one day that Socrates said that he knew nothing. A colleague rightly quipped, “Well you know he was bullshitting everyone, right?. He really did know everything - that is why he said he did not know anything.” And I replied - “Well, look at what they did to Socrates. They killed him.”

Yet, Socrates was really saying that you can never be filled up like a cup. Emptiness is crucial to knowing. You have to leave a little room for nothing. For learning to happen you have to cede a bit to the other side. 

Most of the fights in my house growing up could probably have been better sorted out if someone drew a T chart and said, “OKAY. Let’s look at both sides of this issue.” I would probably be a better teacher if I stopped when a student said something I did not understand or that I questioned. “What makes you say that?” is such a great question to throw back at someone. At heart that is what I like to do. I like to ask what makes that possible. But I am also that pigheaded person who is also outspoken. But I will fight to the death for you to say the opposite! 

I give my apologies to Voltaire.

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