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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The importance of being ignorant

    Somewhere, a child is asking its parent why the sky is blue – and somewhere, that parent makes up an answer.

    As students at an institution of higher learning, it’s safe to say that we all have a certain thirst for knowledge, and that we all are, to some degree, smart (though only some of us choose to advertise this by sitting around in cafes namedropping prominent scholars.) Unfortunately, this also means we are entirely too susceptible to the problem of trying to know everything, or to at least pretend that we do, and it’s time we all learned to get over ourselves.

    Surely it’s happened to you: You’re writing a paper and in order to advance your argument, you might make a little assumption here or there. Or perhaps you think your honors thesis is a bit more groundbreaking than it actually is, and you e-mail a bunch of acquaintances to brag about the accomplishment. Locked away in our ivory tower, it can be very easy for us to feel like we’ve pretty much learned everything there is to know by the time we graduate – or certainly by the time we get the “”high score”” of academia, a Ph.D. Drunk on confidence, we fearlessly make things up if we find ourselves in a situation where we don’t know something.

    It’s an attitude our families usually encourage. You could be at a holiday dinner with relatives when the subject of your study abroad trip comes up. All of a sudden you’ve got to play the expert on the country you were visiting, even though you were only there for a semester. And how many of us could say we don’t enjoy the feeling of being an authority, pontificating before a captive audience?

    Therein lies the trouble. Everyone, not just university students, wants to be an authority on one topic or another, and nobody seems to want to admit that they’re totally, hopelessly ignorant in regard to anything. Usually this just has the harmless result of making political discussions universally unbearable, but when left unchecked the consequences can become disastrous. Just have a look at the Bush administration: Rather than sheepishly admitting that they weren’t so sure about those weapons of mass destruction, they launched a meandering, goalless war. (Of course, Alberto Gonzales et al. later proceeded to take admission of ignorance a bit too far in the opposite direction.)

    As a university student, there’s a very good chance that you’ve done at least one impressive thing since you were 18, and I’m not talking about keg stands. College students are presented with a wealth of opportunities to develop their character, launch a career or even change the world on a nearly daily basis. While it’s wonderful to seize these opportunities, it’s also wonderful to maintain a realistic perspective on your knowledge and your deeds. Allowing your accomplishments to lead to overconfidence – or a fear of appearing less authoritative if you admit ignorance – undermines the very thing you’re (hopefully) in college for: an education. Every time you puff up your achievements or claim as knowledge what is really more of a guess, you’ve passed up an opportunity to actually learn something new. And chances are, it’s something new you could have learned by listening to someone else around you.

    So don’t be afraid to say “”I don’t know.”” Don’t be too proud to accept that although you may have done some awesome things in college, you probably didn’t actually change the world, or even your field of study. Doing these things won’t make you a failure; rather, it will open you up to new knowledge, new perspectives and new opportunities. By realizing you haven’t done, seen and learned it all, you’ll see just how far you are still able to go, just how much of life lies before you, waiting to be explored.

    “”The one thing I know is that I know nothing,”” Socrates is famously quoted as saying – and this is, perhaps, the most important thing you can know.

    Alyson Hill is a senior majoring in classics, German studies and history. She can be reached at

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