Living with ambiguity…

One of the things that used to drive me crazy during my many years in the teaching profession was the steady stream of people who had it all figured out.  If everybody would just do things THEIR way, we could instantly transform education and save every kid.  Sometimes they were colleagues, sometimes they were administrators, sometimes they were parents, sometimes they were outside experts, sometimes they were the kids themselves.  I tried to always listen to what they had to say and take away from it what I thought might work in my own practice, but when I was asked to articulate my personal philosophy/style, all I could ever say was “eclectic”.  I know my lack of enthusiasm for adopting every new fad irritated more than a few folks, but it seems to be part of my personality that I see gray where others can only see black or white.  Very early in my career I observed that not every lesson worked with every class, and that not every technique or approach worked with every kid.  I tended, therefore, to try to navigate a middle ground, accepting that I wasn’t ever going to reach every student but hoping to at least not harm them in the process.

Jamie Holmes, in his new book, Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing (Crown Publishers, 2015), would say all these “do it my way” people have ambiguity intolerance and a high need for closure, defined by psychologist Arie Kruglanski as a “desire for a definite answer on some topic, any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity.”  It is Holmes’ belief that our modern world, with its explosion of information and global interaction, requires a heightened ability to not only tolerate, but actively embrace, uncertainty.  Divided into three sections, this book reviews and synthesizes current brain research on our human need to create order and arrive at conclusions and “closure”, explores situations where this need backfires and then proposes ways to refine and cultivate an appreciation of NOT knowing.

I always admire authors who can make complex topics accessible, and Holmes is adept at this.  His clear and engaging writing makes highly technical scientific ideas understandable, and his choice of vignettes to illustrate his various points are interesting and wide-ranging.  I especially liked his chapter on the way the Spanish clothing chain, Zara, was conceived and developed as a direct reaction to the impossibility of predicting the future, as well as the one on the benefits of becoming bilingual and the ways in which moving between languages allows us to more easily embrace uncertainty.

I did find it interesting that Holmes steered clear of two areas where I think the need for closure has resulted in dangerous divisions:  religion and politics.  I have a personal rule – reinforced by bitter experience – to never discuss these topics with anyone other than my immediate family and my closest friends, though, so I think from a publishing standpoint Holmes was wise to avoid them.  But as I read, I couldn’t help but think that much of what informs our current world difficulties stem from the propensity we humans have to need definitive answers, and to hold fast to those answers even when they are proven to be inaccurate or unsuccessful.  This need to view everything in black and white is closely related to new findings about the rising American political polarization, where an article in this week’s Washington Post by Max Ehrenfreund finds that “Americans increasingly view members of the opposite party with contempt and scorn.  They see them as less intelligent and more selfish…” That need for easy, precise answers and that casting of anyone who disagrees as “idiots” is really the only way I can think of to explain Donald Trump.  But as a student of history, I also find it perilous and alarming.  Certainly the state of education in this country, with its obsession over standardized tests and teacher accountability for those scores, reflects a belief that there MUST be a clear answer for the centuries old question of how and what to teach our children.

As I read Nonsense, I was struck by a sad irony:  the people who would most benefit from understanding the psychological and biological nature of our quest for answers and the value of developing a tolerance for uncertainty would probably never even consider this book. For what it’s worth, I want to state here:  I DON’T think that my friends and family members who disagree with me politically are “less intelligent and more selfish”.  I think they interpret information differently, but since I also think our society works best when we accept and compromise with other perspectives and interpretations, that’s okay.  I chose this book and enjoyed it immensely precisely because from a very early age I realized that there are a whole lot of unknowns in the universe.  The paradox is that the higher a person’s innate  need for closure, the less likely they are to accept the premise that we can’t always know all the answers.   I highly recommend Nonsense, all the same.  It is a timely, thoughtful, and important contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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