- Books, Literature, and Writing
There Is Something I Do Not Know
Knowing When to Find Out
There was a sitcom character, a teen
girl, who needed correcting on her facts at least twice per show. Each time someone set her straight she said, “I knew that.” This always got a laugh because it was
obvious that she had not known—and because we recognize ourselves in her
insistence that she knew. The gag provided a bit of release from a
common anxiety, that there is something we don't know. Everyone else knows but we don't. Never mind that many others do not know or that we have had no chance to learn. We pretend to know on penalty of rejection from the group. Once that anxiety sets in it’s a lot harder
to ask questions and learn. In fact, pretending to know can be a substantial barrier to learning.
Insecure children are especially vulnerable to the need to pretend to know what they don’t know. Bullies, know-it-alls, and the shy girl in the last row of science class all have this in common: the fear that they will be found out and ridiculed for not knowing. Yet there is much that most children—and most adults—don’t know.
To give this idea a solid base, let’s look at what it takes to know the facts of any matter or to know what’s going on in the world. First, one would need to observe life directly with some accuracy. Then, for those things which cannot be directly observed or covered in a single lifetime, trusted secondary sources would be needed, such as adults and older children who know, and a habit of using reference books and internet resources. This is an ideal—a confident child in the context of confident grownups who know some things and are willing to say what they do not know--and willing and able to set about finding answers.
The more usual scene is that those caring for children in the formative years are not themselves confident people. They are pretending to know what they don’t know. Indeed, they are likely to be found pretending to know how to raise confident children. In their worry, they put children down, robbing them of confidence. Result: children who cannot trust their own perceptions (direct observation of life) and take on life, who cannot trust familiar adults, and who do not know how to ask questions and use resources.
It is just such a background I have had to pull myself out of. Sometimes I still catch myself pretending. I recently picked up a copy of the New Haven Advocate and began reading an article about the demise of Borders bookstores. (The writer expressed a certain admiration for a vision gone wrong, the idea those who shop at malls in Middle America are readers of literary works in sufficient numbers to support more than 600 huge shopping mall stores.)
As I was reading this interesting article I came across the word cognoscenti. Comparing Borders to Starbucks, writer Greg Beato says the latter has popularized “what had previously been the province of elitists and the cognoscenti—high-end espresso.” I, of course, know this word. Well, I do now because I looked it up. But it took me a few moments to realize I had read a word I did not know. After all, the word cognoscenti seemed familiar—like meeting someone with a familiar face. You try to place the person but it’s someone new. What I already knew was that cogno- means knowledge. The word looked vaguely like cognizant, a familiar friend. Still, I couldn’t quite get the full meaning. In such a case, the dictionary is always a good resource. It gave me the meaning of cognoscenti, plural from of cognoscente, as “those in the know.” It also gave me the history of the word, which was Italian and Latin, no surprise. Under cognition I found the root co + gnocere gnit, apprehend.
Ah, now I was on familiar ground. We apprehend with our prehensile minds, a mental thumb wrapped around a stickof a pot of knowledge. In so doing, we increase our workable knowledge and get a better handle on life. In another sitcom, or possibly the same one, another girl had a tendency to get hysterical and was told to get a grip. something best done with self-knowledge.
Grasp, a word of probable Germanic origin, means to pick up firmly as with the hand or, metaphorically, to get the idea. (Behind every word there is a picture, an action.)
In her everyday speech my mother used tumble, often in a story about someone who got fooled. (“Maryann kept tasting her coffee and scowling. She never tumbled that Ora had put salt in the sugar bowl.”)
Then there is grok, that seventies favorite from science fiction. I believe the book was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Someone may have to correct me on this. To grok was to understand in a way that pierced through to the essence.
I’ve learned to watch for words I do not know and look them up. Reading is a much happier experience when you don’t leave a series of mysteries behind. (Contrary to what my grade school teachers taught, taking the meaning of a word from the context is just guessing.) Further, it seems that in order to find out anything, you have to start from knowing that you don’t know. A luxury born of living in a space where it is safe not to know, a safety many of us must earn in later life yet one that should be granted every child.
Note: As for my credentials, I am no word expert. I am playing.
Knowing When to Find Out
- SWAMP WALKING WOMAN
In a modern fairy tale a woman wanders into a swamp where she finds unhappy families living on muddy islands in fear of the lords of the swamp. She must find out who these lords are--and the courage to help the people take back their green world.