I Don't Know, But...

by Zachary Gottlieb '10 | 11/18/09 11:00pm

Perhaps I've been reading too many William Safire columns or have succumbed to the jaded pettiness of a senior amidst enthusiastic underclassmen, but I'm using my 700-word allotment to discuss a daily decision in Dartmouth discussion diction that deliberately diminishes discursive value (alliteration, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship). A quotidian bother for this humble columnist has been the frequent use of "I don't know, but" as the preface to comments during class discussions. Despite the lengthy and adequate answer that usually follows, students constantly add this small, humbling prefix to their statements. I have decided to deconstruct the thought process of these self-effacing Ivy Leaguers.

The use of "I don't know" has become pandemic, to the point that it is not even noticed by most students for what it is a direct negation of the argument about to be made. This statement immediately undermines the foundation of an assertion and destabilizes it. Why, I ask, do such intelligent individuals constantly use this diluting refrain to preamble their points? It's as if, once disproven, the student is exonerated by their first declaration: "I claimed ignorance." Interestingly enough, what follows this common prefix is usually a reasonable argument. It's use demonstrates a lack of confidence a confidence that often gives students the necessary inspiration to defend their opinions, even under scrutiny. Is there an atmosphere of hostility in the classroom that encourages students to protect themselves? What specifically engenders the need for what I'll name, in a most scholarly way, the prophylactics of hermeneutics?

Apparently, many Dartmouth students fear the risk of rejection of their ideas as a personal failure. And, it may be true that students too often assume that what they say is a fundamental and inexorable representation of themselves, as opposed to a contribution within the context of an educational process. The willingness to be wrong and hyper-extend our intellectual approach is healthy for educational development. I consider this element of daring the essence of the artistic intellect. As author John Maxwell said, "If we're growing, we're always going to be out of our comfort zone."

In a tricky logical subterfuge, saying "I don't know" undercuts our intellectual claims to legitimacy. Education requires us to personally join scholarly debate, which is full of academics with confidence in their arguments. Imagine the first words of your next reading assignment an article from the Wall Street Journal, let's say being "I'm not sure, but." I believe this distills my contention.

Simply put, the next enabling step in becoming scholars ourselves is a willingness to acknowledge our own importance as individual thinkers. A lack of confidence in our thoughts can stunt not only the development of our own thought process, but also that of our collaborators and opponents. Setting up your argument for failure ends the spirit of deliberation and debate. Even if you "don't know," your initial aspiration to speak demonstrates a participatory urge that you shouldn't cripple at birth. There's no need to deliver an idea with a gloomy prediction of its failure.

A major fallacy that accompanies this topic is the confusion of confidence and arrogance. The former allows us to make a persuasive ideological defense, while the latter implies mulish myopia. I am here to breathe confidence into those unwilling to give credit to their opinions, not arrogance into inflexible minds. Confidence makes our points tenacious, and if they're unfounded especially if they're unfounded they push our classmates to form cogent and insightful rebuttals. Everyone wins.

Even as young intellectuals dwarfed by the colossal canon of brilliant works that we consult on a daily basis, we must stay courageous. We must be willing to falter, but bravely.

Let me leave you with a relevant quote from my favorite turn of the century mustachioed and bespectacled president: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and againso that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Teddy and I challenge you to know something.