May 22, 2012

Embracing the unknown

College isn’t about learning all there is to know—it’s about knowing all there is to learn.

Donald Rumsfeld was widely mocked in 2002 for this infamous statement: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns.” Though it is tempting to criticize someone who made many decisions that I strongly disagree with, there’s certainly nothing untrue about his statement. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of “known unknowns.”

Though the purpose of going to college is to get an education, it occurred to me that sometimes making the choice to attend can also end up limiting what you will learn. For example, when I was a senior in high school, one of my college interviewers asked me what I would do if I weren’t going to college. I did not acquit myself very well with my answer. As Rumsfeld might say, the life of someone who never went to college was a “known unknown” to me. I had planned on going to college for most of my life, as had all of my friends. Though I was certainly aware of what occupations didn’t require a college degree, anything I said was going to sound hollow because I could at best speak only abstractly on a subject about which my interviewer, a first-generation college student, was much more informed.

This is not to say that it is impossible for a college student to understand the lives of anyone besides other college students. In fact, I believe that one of the main purposes of going to college is to develop the ability to envision the lives of people completely different from you. This can be achieved through many different means, including coursework, community service, or simply interacting with your classmates.

Unfortunately, the disciplines that I think are most effective in helping people understand the lives of others, such as history, sociology, and English, are also subject to much derision from those who aren’t studying those fields. Furthermore, though it is outside the scope of the curriculum of many of the so-called “practical” majors (i.e. STEM disciplines) to teach us what it might be like to be somebody else, it doesn’t help matters that such fields also tend to be less diverse than the student body as a whole. Thus, not everybody in college has the same opportunities to learn about other people.

College can’t teach us everything we will ever need to know because four years just isn’t long enough. Besides teaching us content, though, college has the potential to teach us ways of thinking. Four years can be enough to set us up to continue learning for the rest of our lives. In order to do that, we have to be taught to recognize what we don’t know—that is, the “unknown unknowns” need to be converted to “known unknowns.”

As college students, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’ve got the solutions to all of society’s seemingly intractable problems. “If only politicians would read our term papers and school newspaper op-eds,” we think to ourselves, “then we could easily fix unemployment/ gender inequality/ the obesity epidemic/ the rest of the world’s ills.” College students’ ideas aren’t necessarily bad; in fact, some of them might be quite similar to plans enacted by policymakers. However, if a seemingly good idea hasn’t achieved its intended result, then something important has probably been overlooked. I think that part of the reason that certain problems seem unsolvable is that people tend to come up with ideas based on the notion that other people are fundamentally like themselves. For example, Mitt Romney once suggested to some college students that they borrow money from their parents to start a business. Although that plan will probably work out well for those who have backgrounds similar to Romney’s, it is simply not feasible for a lot of people.

Since our own set of “known knowns” is different from everybody else’s, it would be very difficult to fully understand what it’s like to be somebody else. Nevertheless, recognizing the limits of what we do know will help us become better problem solvers. At the risk of overgeneralization, I think most of us here fall into two categories: Those who will leave college confident in their expertise and those who will leave college humbled by the scale of what they have yet to learn. It can be tough to be a part of the latter group—it is tricky trying to persuade someone who’s confident in her worldview of anything if you’re perpetually aware that further information might change your perspective. Nevertheless, a little self-doubt will push you to seek more knowledge and make better-informed decisions in the long run.

Jane Huang is a second-year in the College.