A few weeks ago, I remembered something I hadn’t thought in a long time — that I really don’t know anything. It happened when I was helping a friend with a paper. I’m a philosophy major, so sometimes, my friends take one of the classes in my department, they ask me for advice and I do my best to help them with their papers.
But as I was going over his essay on Descartes, I realized that I was just not a qualified resource for this topic. It’s not that I hadn’t studied the topic before. I’d read Descartes’ works, attended lectures and even written papers on his ideas. But as I thought about it, I remembered that there are people who have spent years, decades even, studying what I was studying. There were people asking questions I hadn’t even dared to ask.
Coming to Yale, I acknowledged that I was, more or less, pretty stupid. I was green. I was naïve. I thought it might get better. In all honesty, I don’t think much has changed. As a sophomore, I still feel just as green — the only difference is that now I realize just how little I know. I’m beginning to grasp the vast space that I still have yet to explore. And I think that’s a sentiment that, as Yalies, we should keep close to heart.
At Yale, we’re told that we’re the best and the brightest. We’re told that we’re in the top one percent of the academy. This notion gets thrown at us so often that we eventually just buy into it. We are more than ready to proclaim ourselves as experts at the drop of a hat. We’re more than ready to employ terms and arguments that we don’t fully understand to prove a point we haven’t fully explored.
I’m not saying that it’s bad to be confident in your own capabilities. I’m saying it’s bad to consider your opinions infallible, your perspective superior and your insight somehow deeper than others. Every point is surprisingly nuanced, surprisingly profound — and chances are neither you nor I have had sufficient time to explore it.
I acknowledge that some of the smartest people I’ve ever met have been Yalies. But some of the most stubborn, obstinate people I’ve met have also been Yalies. It’s good to have strong beliefs, but I don’t think that we should hold strong beliefs without properly giving all perspectives a chance. And I think that the problem lies with our tendency to trust our views without interrogating them.
We falsely believe that we’ve thought about the issue from all different angles. We believe that our minds are open. But too often, we’re closed off and we perceive any assault against our stance on an issue as a personal attack.
Sometimes a new idea may not sit well with you. It may give you a queasy feeling. I know that’s happened to me more than once. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it, label it blasphemous and be on your way. To truly do justice to your own opinions, you should really consider all contradictory ideas — even try to argue on their behalf.
When you’re able to reconstruct the new argument as well as you can your own, then you can decide which one you buy. It’s only then that you should feel confident to present your case. Maybe your opinions will have changed during this process of self-examination. Maybe they will be even more firmly calcified. Regardless of the outcome, what truly matters is that your opinions withstood battery — and in the end that makes them stronger, more resilient.
Humility in this sense can go a long way. You shouldn’t fear being wrong. You shouldn’t fear new ideas. Maybe it is the case that we’re relatively smart, but we’re all still young. And we’re still naïve. Everyone should be open to growing. We’re far from being experts on any subject, and it’s always good to see every argument or idea as an opportunity to learn and evolve.
Everyone can do more in this respect. Next time you and your friend find yourselves in a heated discussion, it may help to switch sides and even play devil’s advocate midway through the debate. And this isn’t merely arguing for the sake of arguing. Rather, it would help both parties figure out where they stand.
We should certainly have our own opinions and believe in them fiercely when duty calls. But believing in your ideas involves putting them up to the test — putting them under intense scrutiny and realizing that maybe they won’t make it out. But in the end, it’s better to have thought and lost than to never have truly thought at all.
Leo Kim is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.