I don’t know if I agree with “Freakonomics” authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, who make a strong case for “I don’t know” being the three hardest words in the English language to say. I used to say it without hesitation, often facing very little penalty.
“I don’t know,” I said when my second-grade teacher, Ms. Fay, asked me about the whereabouts of a letter she had sent home to get signed by my mother. “I don’t know,” I insisted, when my toys found their way out of the closet and onto the floor minutes after my room had been cleaned. And I have said “I don’t know,” (and likely, so have you) when responding to questions like “And who do you think this sinkful of dishes is waiting for?” As I got older and wiser, a shoulder shrug conveyed my ignorance of things I chose to be clueless about. Can’t we all relate to a time in our lives when not knowing was our default response?
So when did having an answer, any answer, become so important? Perhaps, the more competitive the setting, the more intense the pressure exists to know. And that may partially explain the culture on this campus — one where many of us automatically posit on topics we often have little expertise on. Maybe admitting to not knowing compromises our sense of worthiness to actually have been chosen to be part of this rarefied setting.
But the same trend exists when we leave the Yale bubble. Take my experience asking for directions from locals when I spent two weeks traveling in China. My few encounters always left me feeling duped. Spoken with the certainty of a zen koan and with more hand gestures than an air traffic controller, many would give me directions to my desired destination. The Chinese people I spoke with never said they did not know — even when the route they mapped never took me to where I needed to be. I suppose people, both in the U.S. and abroad, tend to favor conveying certainty over confronting the possibility of self-doubt. This allows for a false sense of mastery of an environment.
Thus, what used to be a comfortable stance for many of us has morphed into a painful declaration of incompetence. It feels better to have an answer, even a fudged one, than embrace the ambiguity that “I don’t know” can generate. Maybe it helps us find order in a madly accelerating world, even if it comes at the expense of our credibility.
I think sometimes of how we revere people who know: those who know their major when they come for Bulldog Days, who know which candidate will be the Republican nominee, who know the answer to that very challenging math problem, who know when to walk and who know when to run. And it seems to me that in knowing, we may be shortchanging the magic of finding out, of discovering, of honoring our own limitations so that we can actually learn and improve ourselves.
This seems especially pertinent in the wake of recent events on campus that have captured our attentions and dominated our conversations. Everyone seems to “know” what happened that night at the SAE doorstep. While the actual events itself may fall secondary to the broader, and more important, conversation they stimulated, we must not lose sight of the things that remain uncertain. This is in no way to doubt the narratives of others, simply to remind ourselves that not all facts have to be conveyed as gospel. In other words, it’s okay not to know. This can be applied to many of the campuswide debates, whether it is the proper title for “Master” or the right name for Calhoun. Our inability to admit the inadequacy of our knowledge drives us to make damaging and short-sighted statements.
I don’t know if I can convince you to challenge our status quo of “knowing.” We were accepted into Yale on the basis of how little we didn’t know, and shaking this mindset is easier said than done. However, I strongly suspect — dare I say, I know — that such a change will foster more meaningful interactions and fuel more creativity.
Mrinal Kumar is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .