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I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't)
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I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't)

3.50  ·  Rating details ·  291 ratings  ·  58 reviews
Librarian's note: There is an Advance Reader Copy for this edition of this book here.

A short, concise book in favor of honoring doubt and admitting when the answer is: I don’t know.

In a tight, enlightening narrative, Leah Hager Cohen explores why, so often, we attempt to hide our ignorance, and why, in so many different areas, we would be better off coming clean. Weaving e
Hardcover, 128 pages
Published September 12th 2013 by Riverhead Books
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3.50  · 
Rating details
 ·  291 ratings  ·  58 reviews

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Edwina Callan
Ah, yes, the problems we create for ourselves simply by not saying three little words ...
I. Don't. Know.

I loved this little book ... especially the part where the chief of obstetrics asked the new intern if she'd ever done a tubal ligation, she said, "Yes", when in fact, she had only watched it done ... ONCE!
The chief handed her the scalpel ... then, later ... they both went and LIED to the patient about
Tough Circumstances. It reminded me of my many hospitalizations and how something BAD happene
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
I don't ever say I don't know. Maybe it's part of being a librarian or maybe it's my supercilious personality, but I just don't say I don't know.

I'm stopping. From now on, I will bravely admit my ignorance. I will try.

This tiny little book, a long essay really, has inspired me. Just do it. Say it. Here goes. I. Don't. Know.

There. That feels better already.
So let me start this review over…

I don’t know what to say about I Don’t Know….

How does that sound? More honest, anyway.
Lalo Dagach
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
Excellent book on the importance of admitting ignorance. This should be required reading before being allowed to open a social media account.
Dec 23, 2013 rated it liked it
I bought this book about the same time as I started getting used to my kindle. And the story of how I found this book reminds us of what we're losing in an increasingly electronic age. Last weekend, I was in the Barnes & Noble looking for a particular book to give a friend for Christmas and chanced on this book and another on one of the display tables.

I picked up the book after first seeing it, then set it down, but the title kept coming back to me, given that I had once written an essay in
Julie Ehlers
Jul 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
I like Leah Hager Cohen's writing--I've read "Train Go Sorry" and some magazine pieces--so I was happy to get this ARC in the mail. Basically this book is about how, sometimes, fear keeps us from admitting that we don't know some things, and also keeps us from expressing things we do know, and both of these tendencies close us off to possibility and prevent genuine connections with others. We are then, as she paraphrases, "at the mercy of our notions." I certainly agree with the premise, and the ...more
Sep 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
In a culture that seems to be more and more in search of a sense of certainty and definitive, black-and-white answers, Leah Hager Cohen’s I don't know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't) bravely presents another perspective. It’s a difficult work to describe. It makes use of existing research, but isn’t particularly scholarly; it’s an extremely long essay, but a pretty short book; it’s a quick read, but a sticky one, simple in appearance but deeply thought-provoking. It ...more
Jul 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
What I expected from this brief book, was a discussion on the advantages of being truthful, admitting errors, admitting ignorance, even when afraid of being viewed as a fool. My dad always said, the only really smart person is that person who knows there is still a lot to learn. Being able to admit you don’t know something, is the only way to learn something. I did not expect it to be this diatribe against the GOP and a cheerleading exercise for what the author seems to consider the more “emotio ...more
Daniel Gargallo
Nov 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Meaningful content here but but it’s not the win it could have been. In the conclusion we get a good look at the writer’s skill and passion leaving me with the feeling of, “where was this in the rest of the book?”

In a surprising way I found more connection to the book in the parts where the writer spoke from her personal experience than when she drew on other people’s intense/traumatic experiences.

Not a bad book to use if you’re going through a period of reflection and want to examine your presu
Steve Granger
Feb 09, 2019 rated it liked it
I Don't Know is an ode to admitting one's own limitations. One strength of this short book is that it emphasized insightful decision-making research and detailed why admitting that you don't know something can be beneficial towards making better informed choices in your life. There is nothing groundbreaking in this book, but it's always useful to be reminded about being sensitive towards succumbing to the allure of pretense.
I was expecting a bit more about "know-it-alls" rather than just people who should actually stand up for what they know.
I don't know is similar in content to Being Wrong , but is a briefer, gentler book. As the title indicates, the author focuses on admitting ignorance rather than (as Schulz does) admitting wrongdoing or wrong-thinking.

Though I don't know is much shorter than Being Wrong, the pattern is similar: the author introduces a concept, supports it with research, and provides examples and anecdotes. Leah Hager Cohen is a lovely writer (I highly recommend her novel, The Grief of Others ), a thoughtful p
Erin Boyington
Jan 31, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
Drawing on the insights of science and literature, this essay explores the power of admitting ignorance - and why it is so difficult to do so.

It's a short book, barely 72 pages long, and packed with the titles of other books to explore if you're fascinated by the topic of ignorance and the limits of human knowledge. There are intense social pressures to appear knowledgeable - pressures that even small children feel, though a failure to admit ignorance often spreads more darkness than light.

Dec 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
**One thing I do know**

One thing that I do know for sure is that I absolutely loved _I Don’t Know_.

As we all know, admitting when we don’t know something can be a challenge. This book provides a fascinating exploration of the two kinds of fears underlying this not-knowing:
“Fear of estrangement and fear of stepping into the abyss—for as much as we might worry that saying ‘I don’t know’ could cost us the human company we desire, evict us from our place around the hearth, there’s an even more prima
Byron Edgington
Dec 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Here we have a timely, succinct and easily read little book that tells us all we need to know about what we don’t. Doctors, lawyers Indian Chiefs, anyone in a position of authority, a parent, teacher, salesclerk, mechanic, minister, nurse… In other words, any one of us confronted with a question or dilemma will, according to Hager Cohen, benefit from the simple acknowledgement that perhaps we don’t know the answer. With a casual style and in very few words or pages, just 128 in hardcover, I Don’ ...more
Jan 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: brain
I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and the framework. It was neat to think of the reasons people might want to pretend to know something they're actually ignorant of (in this book, the desired objects of knowledge were chiefly academic-related points) alongside the less obvious scenarios in which people might pretend not to know something that they do know (repressed memories of sexual abuse, profound insults, the specter or the actuality of violence, etc.)

The book gave a good interpretive lens fo
Feb 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Quick and short with some great ideas and insight. I wish she had taken it a bit further though!
Jenny Kim
Mar 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book caught my attention because the subject itself is something that I've been trying to work on in my own life. I find these three syllables difficult to say and when I delve internally I know why it's difficult to say.

I enjoyed the intimacy and tone of this book. I can only describe it as a soft, back lit image of a female heroine with a gentle smile. But I especially enjoy the book, because it cracks open the reasons why myself and many others are afraid to say "I don't know."
The aut
Dec 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The concept sounds so basic … what's wrong with admitting that you don't know something?? Author Cohen points out that it isn't that easy. Peer pressure, the fear of feeling stupid (we all know about “The Emperor's New Clothes”), and the fear – note how this word keeps coming up – of appearing to lose some authority all prevent us from admitting to being in the dark about something.

Ms. Cohen points out that it can be a sign of strength to admit to not knowing something, and can prevent sometimes
Sep 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
In American culture, the result of vocalizing our lack of knowledge in social settings is quite unacceptable. Shame, guilt, vulnerability and a lack of self-confidence are common. We have all been in similar situations where we were supposed to have known the answer, but didn't. Supposed to have been familiar with the author or works, but weren't. But, Hager Cohen suggests that we can take control of and change this emotional response and cultural construct. We can behave conversely and, in turn ...more
Aug 06, 2013 rated it liked it
This was a quick read with an important message, that it's okay not to know everything. Leah Cohen talks about the very real problem of feeling ashamed about not knowing something and how that can actually inhibit us from gaining new knowledge. She decided as a college instructor that she would start out each of her classes with a discussion about how it's okay not to know something. "We talk about the fear (of not knowing). We talk about which environments tend to feed it, in which situations w ...more
Jan 29, 2014 rated it did not like it
I picked up "I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't)" and wondered how the author could write about such a small subject for nearly 100 pages. I mean, yes, she could write about myth, anthropology, and psychological experiments, but would that fill a book? Maybe, but Cohen only touches on these and instead writes extensively about her friends' experiences and every liberal political subject available. Sexism? Check. Racism? Of course. Climate change, gay marria ...more
Sep 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Truly amazing and worth the five stars. The copy I read was from my local library, and I intend to invest in a copy for myself. A short, concise book that explores, with compassion and relatable anecdotes, how an individual/group/institution/society can be motivated to feign knowing when they do not know or feign ignorance when they do know. Cohen also discusses how having the courage to say "I don't know" except when one shouldn't, can be a guide to living with integrity and openness that creat ...more
Sep 23, 2013 rated it liked it
While the book was enjoyable and well-written, I disagreed with the philosophical implications of the author's suggestion that we apply "I don't know" in every area of life. The refusal to nail anything down will lead to rampant relativism and agnosticism. However, I do think the phrase has a place in many parts of life, where people are often afraid to admit a lack of knowledge. It's understandable; I've felt the pressure myself to "know it all," in the classroom, in conversation, even at churc ...more
Don LaFountaine
Aug 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is a book that does not take long to read and one I enjoyed. I believe the premise of the book is to get people to think about when and why they don't acknowledge their ignorance about a topic. The author makes some very good points as to why we do this, and I can certainly remember times that I was afraid to say I don't know. Either from a fear of embarrassment or of being labeled, almost everyone does this or has done this. This book simply points it out, and discusses why we do this, and ...more
Robbins Library
Aug 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: jenny-recommends
"Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn't make us wishy-washy...We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don't let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine....Fundamentalism of any kind is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say "I don't know." (105-106)

In this brief, thoughtful book, Leah Hager Cohen examines why we're so reluctant to admit when we don't know things, and why it would be better if we
Jan 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
If you have read, discussed or written about the "imposter theory" this book is for you. In this quick read, Cohen explores the stigma of saying "I don't know," and what we sacrifice by doing so:

"We refrain from saying "I don't know" because we want to avoid shame or being shunned. But such pretense comes at a cost. For when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we increase the possibilities for true connection: with others, with new ideas and with our deepest selves. So much becomes possible whe
Aug 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
Mandatory note: Got the ARC via Goodreads’ First Reads.
A well written, thought provoking venture into why we’re loathe to admit when we don’t know things and why we do it. The author manages to turn very dry academic information into a story, almost a conversation with the reader.
A very quick read that tends to go from one tangent to another without really solving the “I don’t know” debate it begins. Its greatest strength is getting the reader to be a part of that debate and think (maybe adjust)
Quin Rich
Sep 29, 2014 rated it liked it
A fun, short, reassuring read. Cohen draws draws from interviews, anecdotes, research, and other sources to offer a brief defense of admitting ignorance. It's not earth-shattering by any means, and falls into some of the same kinds of problematic arguments made by other books of this type. That said, it's not without value if you're feeling a little lost and uncertain, but are unsure how to deal with those feelings for fear of being painted as "not in the know."
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
I Don't Know is clear, concise, thought-provoking, and marvelously entertaining, thanks to Leah Hager Cohen's illuminated prose. In this short book, she accessibly dives into the psychology of ignorance without academic pretention or preachiness. There is a brief, meandering conclusion wherein some of the author's anecdotes don't fully serve as a denouement so much as pretty story material, but overall the book was a (short) but very enjoyable read.
Christopher Giesen
Aug 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
This short and informative book was a pleasure to read. As the title suggests it is focused on the positive aspects of admitting ignorance. I would definitely recommend it as the book takes very little time to read but lends advice that would benefit almost anyone, some more than others. In fact I can think of a few know-it-alls who might be receiving this as a gift from me in the near future...

I received this ARC from a Goodreads giveaway.
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Leah Hager Cohen has written four non-fiction books, including Train Go Sorry and Glass, Paper, Beans, and four novels, including House Lights and The Grief of Others.

She serves as the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Tim
“People cheat when they are afraid. When there is no cost to being wrong or confessing ignorance, there is no reason to cheat or fake comprehension.” 4 likes
“The ignorance we’re ignorant of is the ignorance most difficult to remedy.” 4 likes
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