The importance of not knowing



It’s graduation season, a time when we celebrate the academic accomplishments of students. At this moment when we are celebrating learning, I think it is important to remember the importance of not always knowing—a message I had the opportunity to share a few years ago at a high-school commencement in Cleveland. I wanted to share part of that speech here in hopes that it might be meaningful for some of this spring’s high-school graduates and students already in college. So, a few thoughts for those starting college:

One thing I have learned as I have gotten older is that part of being smart and capable is having the confidence and the wherewithal to say, “I don’t know.” I think there can be a lot of pressure to act like you always know and not nearly enough credit given to the courage it can sometimes take to say you don’t know. A few years ago, a student named Andrew came to meet with me at the end of a course, and he said, “The moment I really came to respect you as a teacher was the first time you said, ‘I don’t know.’” Of course this raises the interesting question of how he felt about me as a teacher before I said, “I don’t know,” but we’ll leave that untouched! I have learned to embrace that phrase in my teaching. Once I tell students about the etymologies of a few words, some of them seem to assume I know the etymologies of all words, so I spend a lot of time saying, “I don’t know.” But the point is that I don’t end with “I don’t know”; I finish with “But let me go find out” (or sometimes, “Why don’t you go find out and come back next class and tell us?”). The more I have learned in my life, the more I have realized all that I don’t know, and I find that exciting and motivating.

When I say to embrace the idea that there is much you do not know, please note that I am not endorsing this as a test-taking strategy. Please do not, when taking your first exam at college, look at the first essay question and write, “I don’t know, and Anne Curzan said I should embrace this fact.” Even I would mark that wrong on a test!

I’m talking about not always knowing what lies ahead and seeing that as exciting rather than, or as well as, a little scary. I think sometimes adults can sound like we always knew what we were going to be; we gloss over the messiness and indecision and moments of crisis-inducing not-knowing that most of us have gone through.

When I was growing up, I read the James Herriott books about his life as a veterinarian, and I decided that was what I wanted to be. I spent my time wavering between whether I would be a small-animal vet and heal cute, furry white kitties or whether I wanted to tromp through fields with horses and cows the way James Herriott did. By the time I got to high school, I had decided I wanted to be an architect. I still have the intricate floor plans I drew of dream houses (one of which my architecture teacher told me would never stand). When I went to college, my plans were to major in math, and I took the high-power first-year math classes for prospective math majors.

I had always loved learning languages, and I knew there was this subject called “linguistics,” but I didn’t know much more than that. The second semester of my first year I signed up for an introductory linguistics course, and I discovered that I loved taking apart language to see how it worked—and I was good at it. The next semester I took a course on the history of English with a wonderful professor named Marie Borroff, and I realized that I wanted to know all the things that she knew. It took me four more years and a trip to the other side of the world to teach for a couple of years to figure out what that meant in terms of a career after college. But if I hadn’t taken that course and eventually changed my major from math to linguistics, I wouldn’t have found this profession that I love.

With this story, I’m saying a couple of things to students starting college. First, if you don’t know what you want to major in yet, that’s great. And if you change your mind a couple of times in college, that’s even better. Second, if you know what you want to major in, I hope you will open the door a crack and say, “I think I know what I want to major in,” leaving yourself every chance to find your academic passion. That passion may be the major you already have in mind; and it may be something else. So here is a promise I am asking you to make to yourself: Think of a subject that you don’t know much about but you think sounds really interesting (that could be anything from astronomy to zoology), and promise yourself that in your first two years in college, you will take one course in that area. You owe this to yourself, and it is what college is about.

When I went to college, I did not know how to “do college.” And here’s the kicker: I also did not realize that I did not know how to “do college.” College is fundamentally different from high school, or at least it should be—and nobody told me that.

College at its best is about taking the time and the chance to find what you’re passionate about—from a major to a profession to a cause to a place in the world, and the list goes on. It’s about taking control of your experience and education (in the broadest sense) to make it what you want it to be—not what you think someone else thinks it should be.

If and when you hear yourself say, “I can’t,” I am asking you to take a step back and think if that is really what you mean. Sometimes you really can’t. For example, I can’t run fast enough to qualify for the Olympics. (My one remaining hope is that they will make Boggle an Olympic sport some day.) However, often when we say, “I can’t,” what we are really saying is “I won’t” or “I shouldn’t”—in other words, “I am choosing not to.” Each of us has the right and responsibility to make choices about what we will and will not do, but I hope you will not rule out exciting possibilities to explore your own passions, both in college and beyond, because you do not know yet exactly where they will lead or how all the puzzle pieces will fit together.

Author Bio: Anne Curzan is a professor of English at the University of Michigan, where she also holds appointments in linguistics and the School of Education.