Mid-lecture last quarter my professor asked our class a question. I felt like I might know the answer, but my uncertainty caused my heart to race and cheeks to flush. What if my answer was incorrect? I didn’t want to look stupid in front of other students, nor did I want my professor to think less of me.
When no one replied, he was frustrated, and understandably so. It probably looked like we weren’t studying.
What was less understandable was my irrational fear of being wrong. American education is supposedly based on the Socratic method — asking questions and not knowing the right answer is a part of the process. Ignorance, in a sense, is encouraged.
So, what could explain my trepidation and my professor’s exasperation? Perhaps author Leah Hager Cohen had the answer.
Two years ago, Cohen’s book, “I Don’t Know: The Praise of Admitting Ignorance,” had just been published and she took her guest appearance on NPR’s Morning Edition to advocate for uncertainty.
“This year’s graduating high school class will be the first generation to have grown up entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act,” Cohen said. “This is an entire generation of kids who have 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.”
There is a sense of shame around getting the wrong answer. An “F” on an exam not only connotes a failed test, but a failed person.
In sociologist Renata Salecl’s book “Tyranny of Choice,” she discusses the way in which evaluations are a part of our corporate culture and explains, “The constant process of evaluation and monitoring which is crucial to industrial manufacture has become internalized as a way of controlling our behavior.”
This behavioral control does not mean it’s intended to be oppressive. The idealistic hope of grades and evaluations is to get students to do homework, be rewarded for its accuracy and submission and thus obtain knowledge.
The cost to this kind of education is felt by people like me who, at times, would rather remain silent than answer a question incorrectly. Salecl suggests this self-blame is common, and hinders our ability to look at the bigger picture.
“When we feel ashamed of the choices we have made, we avert our gaze from society at large and focus on ourselves,” Salecl writes. “We lower our eyes in front of social injustice and feel ashamed for not making the right choices. Rather than see cracks in the social order we see cracks in ourselves.”
This is not to say we as individuals do not have agency in that we should be accountable to our actions and choices. It is true, we will probably fail our exam if we don’t open our textbook all quarter. But without critical examination, our ability to overcome embarrassment may be limited.
As academia shifts from education to evaluation, my desire to critically examine a text or idea begins to wane. If what matters to graduate schools is a high GPA and a good GRE score, then what’s the point of thinking outside the box? Or in this case, outside the test bubble?
This kind of education may cater to some and not others. Grading a Scantron rather than an essay could help professors remain objective, and students may find it easier to have the answer already written in front of them. Either way, however, we are somewhat removed from the material.
My disengagement is honed by the fear of looking stupid and from questioning the point of engaging further. However, philosopher Lewis Vaughn might advise against this sort of acquiescence.
In his text “Philosophy Here and Now,” Vaughn writes, “If you passively accept such beliefs, then those beliefs are not really yours. If they are not really yours, and you let them guide your choices and actions, then they — not you — are in charge of your life. You thus forfeit your personal freedom.”
If we seek truth and understanding, critical thinking is imperative. If we don’t go beyond what we are taught there is more to lose than a way of thinking. Our college experience can solely be about the grades we receive, but only if we let it.