Posted by: Tad McIlwraith | May 21, 2011

Admitting One’s Ignorance is a Good Place to Start

By Patrick Lemoine

Perhaps being at ease with being ignorant is a fundamental part of being an anthropologist. If so, then allow me to share my success story in anthropology.  Tasked with retrieving cedar for an evening sweat, Jake [another field school student –ed.] and I take to the woods, axe in hand. As instructed, we make a small offering of sage and tobacco, and make a small prayer.

“Hi. We’re kind of new to this. Thank you Cedar tree.”

*Chop* *Chop*

We return to the camp with our axe and cedar branch. Our host greets us laughing:

“Oh you found a fir bough!”


Now I may be a city boy, but I’m not sure that’s a suitable excuse for my tree-ignorance: Cedar grows all around Vancouver. Worse, I work in the woods back home. Now that I think about it, there’s a cedar tree less than ten feet from where I ate lunch every day. Still, somehow, I couldn’t differentiate a fir from a cedar. Last week, a cedar was simply a thing in the background. This week, I find myself either pointing them out whenever possible, or being teased whenever we come across either a fir or a cedar.

Take two things from my story:

  1. We, the Douglas Field School students, are terribly excited by the obvious or things that are “in the background.”
  2. You can (and should) laugh with us about how little we know sometimes. Yes, Ignorance can be pretty embarrassing. However when that embarrassment leads to being educated by the community, it is a great thing.  Furthermore, and oddly enough, being at ease with our ignorance and embarrassment seems to be an important part of our training as blooming anthropologists.


  1. Patrick. There is an old expression I have often used, and your case (and your humility) fits it rather well. “If you can advance from not knowing what you don’t know to knowing what you don’t know, you have made real progress.” Keep looking in the background, as you say; it’s sure to be full of discoveries.

  2. “So certain are you. …. You must unlearn what you have learned.” Yoda

  3. […] have had some awkward moments, like the time Patrick and I mistook pine for cedar, or the time I broke Randy’s axe on the first chop – “Sorry again Randy”. When Randy asked […]

  4. Patrick, I love your blog and your revelations about being at ease in our ignorance and embarrassment. Sometimes a fumble (like not knowing the difference between a cedar and a fir) can be a real ice breaker. Recently, I became known as Suskwa Woman (bear woman) because I mistook a container of bear grease for honey! and put it in my tea. I was teased and there were many jokes at my expense but it really did break the ice and I even had one fellow decide to try it when I insisted that it was actually pretty good!

    I have two quotes for you: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (Confucious) and “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” (Benjamin Franklin). You seem to have discovered both of these things and more.

    Good luck with the field school…

  5. Nice post Patrick. I think you may be on to something when you say that perhaps being at ease with being ignorant is a fundamental part of being an anthropologist. I don’t know that it one needs humility, but it sure doesn’t hurt. I liked your story.

  6. we’ve all been there! the best part is the humor and jokes at your expense later on, it never gets old and also helps keep you on your toes! next time you will be keen and ready, this experience has helped you in two ways. one, you will pay a lot more attention to the smaller details and second, it will become easier to laugh at yourself(which is a good thing)

  7. Patrick, keep laughing. It is seriously the only way to live.

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