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Right Answers

It’s hard to find a group experience where some human in the situation doesn’t declare that they have the right answer, a field of certitude flowing out, enveloping everyone in sight. Often this certitude is uninvited, yet there it is. Being “right” is an integral part of the ebb and flow of human discourse, a national “utility” of sorts.

My relationship with “right answers” has progressed through several iterations. There is, of course, my early fondness for mathematics. It took me years to realize that the fondness was really an expression of my attachment to “right answers”. Even in grade school it became clear that most of the other subjects had very fuzzy answers to questions. Some even had many answers to questions. Math, happily, had only “right answers”. Such safety! Such reassurance!

The further I went in my education, the deeper my realization was amplified: “right answers” as I wanted to have them in my life, simply did not exist. This did not temper my desire for them; it simply made any effort I pursued to prove I had the “right answer” a bit of a slight of hand. I knew better. This long and repetitious process led to my conviction that healthy self-doubt was a positive trait, that questioning my judgment was a good idea, especially when I sensed some drift toward “certitude”. I may not have always embraced this insight but I never questioned it.

I ran a research center for six years. I developed two doctoral programs, served as director of each, and taught the first course in each: Philosophy of Science in Nursing. I am never certain what my graduate student employees learned in the research center, but I know I learned a great deal. I am never certain what my graduate students learned in the Philosophy of Science in Nursing course, but I know I learned a great deal. I solidified my conviction that there are no “right answers”.

Science does not generate “right answers”; it provides at best today’s most reliable information on a given topic. Good science will displace this information as we are mastering it. When I say that, I am referring to traditional science, not the emergent versions which are even more unsettling if you are attached to “right answers”. Indeed, the whole business of trying to get at “the answer” is like a mine field of seductions toward certitude.

Faith is another avenue of “right answers”, perhaps most overtly manifest in organized and institutionalized religions. It is of course quickly apparent that the “right answers” vary, leaving the lurking question: “Is one of them “right”?” As is often the case, one or another representative will answer this question: “Yes, I am”. I have reflected on that dynamic most of my life.

One of the most unsettling aspects of “right answers” takes me back to fifth grade math: the naïve belief that “right answers” deal with information or facts. Yet even a cursory review of “right answers” demonstrates that for most people their “right answers” move well beyond fact and information to emotion, values, psychological needs, defenses, terrors…there is actually a very long list and sometimes it is not clear that information and facts are even on the list.

One of my practices as an educator and a trainer in conflict engagement was to persistently present my position about there being no “right answers”. While some folks were relieved at this news, it did not please some students and participants, who were actually there to “get” the “right answers”. They were even eager to prove to me they had them by repeating them back to me. My effort to encourage personal independent thought and self-reflection seemed unfair, like I was withholding the key to a wonderful grade or skill mastery, introducing unreasonable expectations.

Indeed, for some students it felt like I had failed in our “contract”. My job, they believed, was to give them “right answers”. They memorized them. Their questions were designed to make sure that they had exactly the “right answer” I was secretly harboring. It was not of import whether my “right answer” even made sense. They key was memorization of whatever emerged from me as the “right answer”. Then I was to ask them for the “right answers” that they had memorized. If they said exactly what I had told them was the “right answer”, they could get an “A”! I always wonder if others ask why we call that strange process “education”.

A surprising amount of human conflict is an expression of “right answer” positionality: “If you are right, that makes me wrong.” Obviously, it is not simply that there are two or even more conflicting “right answers”. It is, as noted earlier, that our “right answers” carry a heavy burden of our fears, fantasies, and folk lore. If we are declared “wrong”, a whole lot of other things are tainted with the declaration, and we find ourselves struggling. We must be right: is we are not right, there is simply too much at stake to own our error. Not to worry: there is certitude to save the day!

It is my experience that everything I have described here undergoes a further refinement during the aging process, and the illusion of “right answers” seems self-evident. Watching demonstrations of certitude is sobering, even sometimes tragic. Conversely, the human effort at cautious self-assessment and self-doubt is not only moving but sometimes inspirational. There is a strutting that goes with certitude that begins to look silly if not pathetic. There is almost a playful and refreshing tempo to the realization that perhaps “right answers” are not available. As my five-year-old grandson has said on more than one occasion, “I’m not sure of this, but I think….”

“Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think”

Albert Einstein

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