On Not Knowing
Issue   |   Wed, 04/05/2017 - 00:22

Walking through the stacks of Frost Library reminds us of the overwhelming volume of published material in the world. No matter how many classes we take, there are always more books we could read, more textbooks from which we can learn and more people to whom we can listen. There is so much we will not know simply because of limited time. However, the feeling of not knowing enough should not become a state of hopeless stagnation. To move forward, to move past the “not knowing,” the next immediate question we should ask ourselves is: How do we think about and reconcile the fact of our limits?

After recognizing the limits of learning, we need to think about how to voice this admission productively. Even if we internally acknowledge our own limits, it can be easy to become defensive on the outside — in the classroom, for instance, pretending you recognize the author or theory that someone is referencing for the sake of your pride. What does it look like to say “I don’t know” to the outside world without hesitation? This place, our college, should be a place which teaches us to say “I don’t know” inflected with curiosity. The college should instruct us how to be genuinely open in the face of not knowing. This does not mean celebrating our ignorance, but rather acknowledging it in order to move beyond it.

In order to arrive at such a culture for our institution, we should be able to look to our professors as role models. Our faculty are some of the most knowledgeable people on this campus, and therefore should also be the most able and willing to admit their shortcomings and ignorances. The best professors here do just that — or, put more broadly, they are consistently flexible and never believe they have reached a point of perfection. They listen and hear how a class responds to material, and they react and teach differently depending on the group, because they know that knowledge and classrooms are not built of cold stone but are at their best when constantly reimagined. Of course, there are certainly professors who do not reflect this willingness to reimagine curriculum and who are unwilling to rethink what work feels most urgent in our new political climate (and our political climate does demand a reorientation from every single person, regardless of one’s politics).

In broader terms, the college itself needs to openly embrace its own malleable quality. As a college, we should not fixate on a certain old image of the institution. Instead, we must acknowledge how any object should be able to change over time. This week, the college announced its first official mascot: the Mammoth. Alumni and students were and are invested in the selection process — some are happy with the decision, and others less so. But regardless of how you feel about our mascot, the change is quite radical. It reflects the resolution of an extremely drawn-out process and stands as an example of the triumph of activism against a stubborn and outdated vision. The change reflects students’ perseverance and self-assuredness. After all, those who advocated for some kind of change must have been the most secure in themselves and in their imagination of the institution — so secure they were willing to submit to the uncertainty of change and newness.

As we learn to destabilize our pride and to admit to “not knowing,” the limits of our knowledge will expand. The more our pool of knowledge expands, the more dynamic the world will become. A single word or ideal can no longer encompass a person in their entirety, because ascribing to someone a simple description deprives them of their humanity. People and their relations have no edges. They have uncertain, nebulous infinities that wouldn’t exist in a society that only values certainty.