Nobody knows anything

Yesterday was a tricky one on both sides of the Atlantic for political scientists. Between Trump’s press conference and the British government’s ever more erratic behaviour on Brexit, it felt at points like a film about politics, rather than a real-life one.

It’s not to say that these things are intrinsically wrong or bad*, but that they are exceptionally hard to understand. My own cri de coeur about not knowing any more got more traffic than anything I’ve posted for a very long time, suggesting I’m not alone.

And I’m not, which is rather the point.

One of the more prominent challenges for those who teach is that you’re expected to know everything, either by your students or by yourself.

Think to when you began teaching and how you worried about needing to cover all the bases and know all the answers. “What if they ask me a question I don’t know?” is the cry we’ve all made (except those of us with delusions of adequacy).

Learning to let go and to accept when you don’t have the answer is an essential step in one’s pedagogic development.

Most immediately, it removes the pressure from you to know everything, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.

That in turn also means the pressure to try and contain your class is also lessened: it matters less if they go ‘off-track’, because now you have the means to say that’s where you’ve gone and it’s OK (even if answers are in short supply).

That then leads to students developing a better sense of what is and isn’t realistic to ask of others (and themselves): you, the teacher, are not the font of all wisdom, but an individual who knows some stuff they don’t and who is helping them to ask the right questions and apply the right techniques to finding their own answers.

It’s all rather liberating, actually.

But still, to be confronted with something that doesn’t really make sense still fills me with unease.

In my case, despite having a day job that is entirely about understanding (and explaining) Brexit, to encounter a big moment that logically shouldn’t have occurred in the way it did and which serves no unambiguous purpose is not a fun moment.

I imagine American colleagues, even after many months of the same kind of thing, might feel similarly about Helsinki..

The resolution is not to bluff, but to talk about it. If we are honest about what we do and don’t know, then we both maintain the credibility of the former, and open the door to debate about the latter. If the past years have taught me anything, then it’s that there’s always someone who’s got an idea out there, so our job should to be open enough to listen and talk with them.



  • Although now I mention it…