Comstock’s Nature Study and the Value of ‘I Do Not Know.’

WHEN AND WHY THE TEACHER SHOULD SAY ” I DO NOT KNOW ”

No science professor in any university, if he be a man of high attainment, hesitates to say to his pupils, ” I do not know/’ if they ask for information beyond his knowledge. The greater his scientific reputation and erudition, the more readily, simply, and without apology he says this.
He, better than others, comprehends how vast is the region that lies beyond man’s present knowledge. It is only “the teacher in the elementary schools who has never received enough scientific training to re- veal to her how little she does know, who feels that she must appear to know everything or her pupils will lose confidence in her. But how useless is this pretense, in
nature-study! The pupils, whose younger eyes are much keener for details than hers, will soon discover her limitations and then
their distrust of her will be real.

In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ” I do not know “; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket
thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ” I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover
it before I do.”

She thus conveys the right impression, that only a little about the intricate life of plants and animals is yet known; and at the same time she makes pupils feel the thrill and zest of investigation. Nor will she lose their respect by doing this, if she does it in the right fashion.

The old teacher is too likely to become didactic, dogmatic, and “bossy” if she does not constantly strive with herself. Why? She has to be thus five days in the week and, therefore, she is likely to be so seven. She knows arithmetic, grammar, and geography to their uttermost, she is never allowed to forget that she knows them, and finally her interests become limited to what she knows.

After all, what is the chief sign of growing old? Is it not the feeling that we know all there is to be known? It is not years which make people old; it is ruts, and a limitation of interests. When we no longer care about anything except our own interests, we are then old, it matters not whether our years be twenty or eighty. It is rejuvenation for the teacher, thus growing old, to stand ignorant as a child in the presence of one of the simplest of nature’s miracles — the formation of a crystal, the evolution of the butterfly from the caterpillar, the exquisite adjustment of the silken lines in the spider’s orb web. I know how to “make magic” for the teacher who is growing old. Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming violet and say: “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.

For three years I had for comrades in my walks afield two little children and they kept me busy saying, ” I do not know.” But they never lost confidence in me or in my knowledge; they simply gained respect for the vastness of the unknown.

The chief charm of nature-study would be taken away if it did not lead us through the border-land of knowledge into the realm of the undiscovered. Moreover, the teacher, in confessing her ignorance and at the same time her interest in a subject, establishes between herself and her pupils a sense of companionship which relieves the strain of discipline, and gives her a new and intimate relation with her pupils which will surely prove a potent
element in her success. The best teacher is always one who is the good comrade of her pupils.”

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