Come with me to Ms. Yun’s notoriously difficult ninth-grade “Intensive Biology” class, 8:30 a.m. It’s the first period of my first day of high school, and I’m nervous. I have the perfect triumvirate of cool things to broadcast my smart-but-edgy persona: bootcut jeans, side bangs and thick black eyeliner. I’m not about to be vulnerable.
But vulnerability is exactly what Ms. Yun demands. She passes out index cards, and then stands in front of the room. “On this card,” she says, “write down the three most important words in science.” She leans back to watch us concoct smart-sounding answers to her question. I think I wrote: “observation, experimentation, peer-review.” Some people said, “biology, chemistry, physics.” One student wrote down the name of an obscure astrophysicist.
Whatever the response, she had stumped us. She read through all our cards, and then smiled: “Nice try, but you’re all wrong. The three most important words in science are ‘I don’t know.’”
I don’t know. I’d argue that those three words are also the three most important — and most under-used words — for us all at Yale. What a sideswipe, right? To admit your intellectual vulnerability, to acknowledge the calcified circumference of your understanding. And so in this culture of performative expertise, we nod along as if we know the answer rather than interrupt to ask the question.
In part, this makes a lot of sense — we’re living in an academic world built on answers. It’s how we got through classes like Ms. Yun’s “Intensive Biology” to wind up at Yale, and it’s how we excel here, often. It manifests in our schoolwork: Sure, an essay is an attempt (“essayer,” the French for “to try”), but it’s an attempt to answer rather than an attempt to question. A problem set, too — we’re looking for answers, rather than writing questions. So to claim, “I don’t know”— as we often fail to do — often feels like admitting defeat.
It’s frightening not to know. Admitting confusion is one of the most courageous things to do at Yale. But admitting not to know is not an insufficiency; it’s a mark of respect for your interlocutor. Being understood — being fully understood — is what we crave most in the world. That’s what love and friendship mean, that’s why a great seminar discussion leaves the entire class still talking on its way out of the room. We all desire some sort of complete comprehension, so saying “I don’t know what that word means” or “I don’t understand” is one of the most honorable things we can do for each other.
But more than that, I want to advocate for living with a quiet sense of “I don’t know.” This is the more important point — that none of us should really know what we want right now. I find myself, my friends, racing for answers. We want to know what we want to do with our lives. We want to know if this is still a good friendship. We want to know how to actually improve as writers. It can feel frightening to admit confusion because it feels like an insufficiency. That’s understandable, but giving into our cowardice is not how we grow. College is this delicious little flextime in which we actually don’t have to know quite yet.
Admitting the gaps in our knowledge requires a revision of a huge part of our social personas, but that’s OK. For many of us, knowing — being a person who knows — is a chief cornerstone of our personality. I’m a chief offender of this. And I’m not the only one: To a degree, we’ve all constructed ourselves around knowing what we’re talking about. It’s a central tenet of self for us to have a thoughtful, surprising, rapid answer to most of the questions we encounter. But we don’t know yet. And that’s why we’re here: to find the questions, rather than find the answers.
Amelia Nierenberg is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .