Whaddya Know?

A memorable 1970’s philosophy exam leads me to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and deep thoughts about epistemology, whatever that is.


Write what you know.

I stare at the paper as if at a snake.  Yikes.  What now?

It’s coming up hard on Christmas, 1970, and I just sat down to write my take-home midterm exam in my introductory political philosophy class.  On the last day of this term’s classes, our Ontario-bred and Oxford-trained professor had handed out a single sheet of paper with the instructions on one side and the exam on the other.  The large-print instructions were as clear and precise as the man himself:

Set aside one hour only to write the exam.

DO NOT turn the paper over until you sit down to write the exam.  

After a lifetime of following instructions at home and at school, it’s no big surprise that I have done just that here as well.  Now I’m sitting at the small wooden desk in my room, wondering what the hell I’m going to do with just an hour.

I had been prepared for survey questions covering what we’d studied this fall term, testing my absorption of the course content: Who wouldn’t be?  I had been ready, less happily, for essay questions on the various themes we’d covered, testing my integration of that content: Why shouldn’t I be?  But I had not even been thinking about an exam testing my adoption of the critical thinking processes we had been exposed to: How could I have been?

My academic career to this point has been a cloth woven pretty loosely from two primary threads.  The warp or basis for the whole has been about learning facts without necessarily appreciating their significance: the Commonwealth countries, their capitals and exports; the order of the periodic table and England’s royal succession; the parts of an internal combustion engine, a plant, a sentence; the correct spelling of big words, like ‘marmalade’, and hard words, like ‘could’.  The weft, weaving over and under these lengthwise threads, has been about learning defined procedures without necessarily appreciating their application: conjugating French verbs and declining Latin nouns; multiplying fractions and integrating functions; cooking tapioca and dissecting frogs (two dramatically different procedures that each produce an unappetizing result).  Not surprisingly, the exams have mostly been about regurgitating facts and executing procedures to order.  

Write what you know.

Yikes is le mot juste.  It’s obvious he’s not asking for a recital of the things I know for exams—the facts isolated from my experience, the procedures disconnected from my daily life–but, rather, for what I really know, whatever that means.  I can spell ‘epistemology’, but I am not even remotely prepared to tackle an actual epistemological question.  To sort through my jumble of feelings, suppositions, beliefs and opinions, for reliable-seeming nuggets.  To dig—fast!—for the bedrock under my feet.

An hour later I get up, having Done Something.  What exactly, at this remove in time, I don’t know.  I do know, however, that my professor marked up the internal inconsistencies in my stream-of-consciousness ramble rather gently.  The ramble itself was mostly platitudes, I expect: about what you’d expect from the not-very-examined life of an eighteen-year-old. 

Write what you know.

It’s been more than forty years since that most memorable of all my university exams (Where does the time go?  I sure don’t know!), and it isn’t just the absence of an exam on my desk  that makes me a little less concerned today about my ongoing inability to articulate what I know.  Today, not to go all paradoxical, I know that what I think I know isn’t necessarily so. 

As Someone said, It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.  It would of course be the case that we don’t know who said this.  Well, many people think they know, but their differing answers are each unsupported by, you know, evidence.  Maybe it was Mark Twain; maybe it was Will Rogers; maybe it was Someone Else entirely.

Or as Another Someone Else said, in a movie about a secret organization managing Earth’s resident space aliens—aliens almost too numerous to count, too varied to even catalogue—Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe.  Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet.  Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Indeed.  Just imagine.  Some parts of what I know tomorrow will even be so.  If only I knew which ones, I could write them down.

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14 Comments

  1. An interviewee for my Nebraska By Dummies, Volume Two book said it was sad that everybody didn’t know anything about Nebraska, including herself.

    I said, “Everybody knows nothing about something.”
    She agreed but added, “Yeah, but everybody has a big mouth.”

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Dave J – Ha! Don’t know/remember! What I should have done was think for 45 minutes and write for 15, but I wasn’t that smart yet.

  2. Lorna

    Isabel, I love the question. I’ll be thinking about it for some time. Another quote I like that takes this discussion along a different path is: “To know, and yet not to do, is to not yet know.”.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Lorna – It is a great question. I’d likely settle for knowing how to assess my answer (or anybody’s), if you see what I mean. As for your quote – I love it! I certainly “know” that I should do many things that I do not – the knowledge is not yet incorporated. Not yet made flesh/action.

  3. Jim Taylor

    I’m with you on the tapioca. Re the quote which may have come from John Billings, I thought that there was one occasion when Donald Rumsfeld actually made sense: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
    Jim

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I’ll see your Rumsfeld (I agree, it does make sense) and raise you an (apparently) Arabic proverb:
      He that knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Shun him.
      He that knows not, and knows that he knows not is a pupil. Teach him.
      He that knows, and knows not that he knows is asleep. Wake him.
      He that knows, and knows that he knows is a teacher. Follow him.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Dave J – Don’t get us started! There’s probably a game where people can speak only in on-topic quotes. If not, I guess there is now.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – Well, Josh is credited by Wikiquotes with saying this: “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”, apparently repeating/rephrasing something some guy named Socrates said (I’m guessing that Socrates was unfamiliar with “ain’t”, no matter how much other English he knew). So he could be the recent-history source of this saying. But I can see how things that sound even close to right get attributed to Twain/Rogers – they said a bunch. It’s like attributing a quote to Churchill – the odds are pretty good…. As for Otto Correct, yes, he’s a dubious friend.

  4. Love the thread. When I’m coaching people and they say “I don’t know” about something we’re coaching about, I often follow it up with “Well, what *do* you know?” – and that starting point often leads them to their own answer of the original question. 🙂

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Melissa – Ah, a variant of the Socratic method of teaching (asking leading questions)! Or the Arabic, maybe (awakening the sleeper)? Not surprising, I guess, that many people(s) would come to similar places with this – we’re just not that different in how our minds work. Putting two and two together – never mind what number you get when you do it! – can be a powerful learning experience.

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