F is for ….freedom from doubt


By Ellen Davis Walker



- The state of being uncertain about the truth or reliability of something.
- A feeling of uncertainty or distrust.
- The point at which one is uncertain or sceptical.
- The condition of being unsettled or unresolved.


In preparation for this article I made the decision to search “women and self-doubt” on  Google. This was an unwise choice, for several reasons. Primarily because the first hit was this ‘enlightened’ piece of journalism courtesy of the Daily Mail . Secondly because the documentation of “women’s’ struggle with doubt” is extensive: the minute dissection of our “condition of being unsettled” spans forums, scholarly articles, psychological studies and even prose. I counted five books on Amazon that contained the phrase ‘Confidence Gap’ in the title (and lost track of the number of articles). Our feelings of uncertainty and distrust are not simply recognised but are marketable, profitable and selling. Fast.


Whilst this article is intended to be a personal reflection on doubt in education (as opposed to  a psychological or economic analysis), I think an awareness of its pervasive nature is nonetheless important. I am an English teacher at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon, which is essentially France’s answer to Oxford or Cambridge. I teach students who have been through a rigorous selection process, and who will go on to sit competitive national exams. They are the French educational elite. It is also important to note that all my final-year students are women.  Being in their presence over the past nine months has confirmed what I for so long experienced during my time at the University of Cambridge. A degree of doubt- a willingness to question oneself and challenge one’s preconceptions- can be fruitful in an academic environment. But it can also be pernicious, destructive and all-consuming. Returning to work in a University environment has made me reflect on the unresolved feelings of  uncertainty that were so central to my own educational experience.


I  have seen them reflected in the girls in my class on an almost weekly basis. These are girls who speak flawless English, who produce brilliant, pertinent analysis of texts, yet tremble with fear and uncertainty during presentations. Girls who apologise repeatedly for being “rubbish” or “wrong”. Intelligent, thoughtful girls who are aware they have been taught the “value of conformity” and of “being obedient” from a young age. Girls who, when asked, say that they feel that “time is limited”, and the biological and social pressure on women to have everything (success, a good degree, a family) can be felt acutely in an educational environment. One student remarked that she thought that “as women we are taught to be aware of everything we stand to gain, but just how much we can lose at the same time.” My own experience at Cambridge followed a similar pattern to that of my students. In an intense, elite academic environment one is taught that only the bold will survive. There is an enormous pressure to not respond to pressure: to come across as confident, and self-assured; to embrace what are widely considered to be stereotypically masculine traits. I was repeatedly reprimanded for not being “bold” or “daring” in my arguments, dismissed by certain professors for being too sensitive, both in my behaviour and in my literary analysis. During one now infamous dinner, the master of my college informed the assembled students that boys were more likely to get firsts as they knew how to take risks, whereas girls would “play it too safe” and under achieve. But perhaps the less said about this particular master the better. In a world where a pervasive sense of thrusting masculinity cannot be ignored, succumbing to the negative ramifications of doubt can feel inevitable. My own turning point came from a culmination of personal tragedy and exceptional teaching. Doubt was (briefly) eliminated from my personal academic equation when I felt that I no longer cared where in the world I was, or what sort of degree I came out with. Under the guidance of three female members of staff (who to this day remain a constant source of inspiration) the feeling of dislocation from the academic pomp of the world around me became a source of strength. In meeting supervisors who encouraged me to “be sensitive” and write truthfully and intuitively, I felt free.


I excelled in embracing an approach that rejected absolute certainty and sought to see things differently, and to see them anew. It is this that I hope to transmit to my own students. Despite the immense, unjust pressure on their shoulders, they have the ability to excel in the face of adversity. Despite the conflicting messages to be bold yet obedient, loud yet demure, uninhibited but not unrestrained, a risk-taker who is only too aware of the precarious nature of her societal place (ment), they should not allow uncertainty to become an insurmountable barrier. If doubt is the point at which one will question what is considered to be true (see above definitions), then women should know that they will always hold the key to their own success. In questioning established thought by refusing to engage with the negative ramifications of doubt, it is possible to carve out a sense of self that is entirely separate from it. In supporting each other, encouraging subjective approaches to work that feel intuitive and true to each individual, I strongly hope that women will continue to rise above and beyond the myriad of books, articles, and studies that bemoan our confidence lack and gap.

When my girls go to sit their final gruelling exams in the upcoming weeks, I hope that they do so with their autonomous sense of self unthinkingly sensed, powerfully and unequivocally present. I hope that they will know that they are not “rubbish” or “wrong”, and to never utter those words in my presence again. I hope they  will know that every lesson has made me unspeakably proud of them, and proud to know them. They, like so many, are going to fly.

And this is just the beginning.



(Photo creator_studio helmo, http://www.helmo.fr)