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I have a new NYT essay on college learning & the blight of "knowingness"
To start 2023, I have a new essay in the New York Times opinion pages: “The Key to Success in College Is So Simple It’s Almost Never Mentioned.” The star of this piece is my friend and former student Emily Zurek Small:
For Emily Zurek Small, college did what it’s supposed to do. Growing up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, she had career and intellectual ambitions for which college is the clearest pathway. “I just kind of always wanted to learn,” she told me recently. “I wanted to be able to have intelligent conversations with people and know about the world.”
In my eyes at least, Emily took the right approach to college: She was open to learning all she could, whether the class was in her major (neuroscience) or not.
One of the most important factors in Ms. Zurek Small’s success seems almost too obvious to mention but, in fact, deserves far more attention and discussion: a simple willingness to learn. In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.
The essay’s argument relies in part on the great philosopher Jonathan Lear’s notion of “knowingness,” the posture of seeming to already-know whatever comes across your field of vision. I have wanted to write about knowingness for a while, because I think it’s rampant in our culture, taking different forms across the political spectrum, and I think we would be better off if we took a posture of humble curiosity in the face of all we do not know.
There’s a good longish essay to be written about knowingness, but I’m no longer sure I’ll be the one to write it. There are other things I want to write about, and life is, if not necessarily short, then at least limited. As a gesture toward the essay I wish I could write, I included a link in the NYT piece to a Gawker article by R.E. Hawley on the wildly popular podcast genre of debunking past cultural beliefs. The leading practitioner is Michael Hobbes, formerly of “You’re Wrong About” and currently of “Maintenance Phase,” but a million other podcasters are doing something similar.
This genre is a terrible blight on the American mind. “It’s less ‘You’re Wrong About’ and more, ‘Other People Are Wrong About,’” U.Va. media studies prof Jack Hamilton tells Hawley in the Gawker piece. Hamilton thinks the podcast “reaffirm[s] what audiences know or suspect a lot of the time, and by framing it as, ‘everything that everyone believes about this is wrong,’ it flatters the viewer or listener. You can think, ‘I was one of the ones who was right about this.’”
Being right feels great. I, for one, love being right, especially, especially, when everyone else is wrong, as they so often are. And when knowledge is tied to moral superiority — because the debunked cultural myth is not only false but sexist, racist, etc., as they all are, according to the podcasters — then I will gladly pay $5 a month to whoever can make me feel that way.
Every political orientation has its characteristic forms of knowingness. Right-wing knowingness can look like election conspiracism or reflexive distrust of “liberal media.” Left-wing knowingness might include complaints about “late capitalism” or reflexive distrust of “corporate media.” Centrist knowingness says “both sides” are corrupt and assumes the truth is necessarily at the mean between Fox News and CNN.
Jonathan Lear’s paragon of knowingness is Oedipus. Oedipus’s problem, Lear argues, is not “oedipal” but epistemological: Oedipus assumes he knows what’s going on in Thebes, and that assumption blinds him to the facts (about his own past, inscribed in the marks on his own body) that confront him. The citizens complain about plague and famine, and Oedipus replies, “Your news, poor earnest children, is not new to me. I know it well.” When faced with new information from his oracle, Oedipus jumps to the wrong conclusion every time. As Lear puts it, Oedipus “assumes he already knows what the problem is; the only issue is how to avoid it. What he misses completely is the thought that his ‘knowingness’ lies at the heart of his troubles: what he doesn’t know is that he doesn’t know.”
The antidote to knowingness is curiosity, perhaps attentiveness. These are capacities you can cultivate on your own, but I think there are few better places to do so than in college, where there is an incredible concentration of things to find out, ways to find out about them, and people who want to help you find them out. As L.M. Sacasas put it in a recent edition of his outstanding newsletter, The Convivial Society, the reward for attentiveness is the world, seen and understood in a much deeper way:
To the amateur stargazer, the seeming scattershot of lighted pinpricks across the darkling sky form meaningful patterns and bind her to a fount of human culture and imagination… [T]he reward of attention is the disclosure of a multifaceted reality: the things themselves, the places they shape, the times they mark. By our attention we gain the world and the world becomes a home.
I hope you’ll read my essay and share it with anyone you think could use its message — perhaps a beloved student or university provost in your life. The world is a huge, strange, interesting, wonderful, horrifying place. You could never know all there is to know about it, but, whether you’re in college or not, it’s worth learning a little more.
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