Shortly before this term began, I had a conversation with my older brother, who had just finished his five-year B.S./M.S. degree. He asked how I felt about entering my third year of undergrad, and I responded with what I think most of us would consider to be a pretty standard answer, the content of which is not particularly important for the purposes of this article.
Upon hearing my response, my brother replied with something curious. Nonchalantly, he said, “Gonny, third year feels different.” I asked how so, and he elaborated that upon becoming an upperclassman, your feelings vis-à-vis the work that you think you are doing is different. You regard courses, relationships, time and priorities much differently.
Initially, I brushed his comments off. Since high school, I have tried to resist the narrative that there is some great division of experience between lower and upperclassmen. I thought that such a notion was preposterous and self-serving. I regarded it as an advantageous narrative that upperclassmen could exploit before lowerclassmen to convince themselves that they were some superior, all-knowing class of peoples equipped with a wealth of knowledge that only their “time in the trenches” could bring (conveniently, no upperclassmen ever bothered to describe the conditions of these supposed trenches; they could have been bedded with Egyptian cotton and decorated with the finest gold for all I knew). Yet, when I stepped foot on campus for the first time this August, those steps did feel different.
I have been thinking about why this time felt so different for the past couple of weeks. The conclusion I have come to is that, as an upperclassman, I enjoy a very particular kind of intellectual confidence. Not confidence in what I do know, but rather, I am confident in what I am capable of knowing. Allow me to elaborate.
I came into college with the understanding that I knew close to nothing about the world in general, let alone anything particular within my prospective fields. Though, of course, I did not necessarily act that way. Nevertheless, I was also not at all confident in my ability to really understand the things that I did not know. I hesitated in everything that I attempted to learn. I fretted so much about all that I did not know, not so much because I did not know it, but because I did not think I had the tools (being the capacity) to learn it. This fretting was so severe that, at times, I found myself petrified into inaction by a fear of not knowing or understanding or reading something “the right way” (whatever “the right way” may have been). Of course, knowing what I know now, I would tell my younger self to just read, ask the basic questions (yes, even in lecture), and get comfortable within the ether of the unknown. But that’s hindsight, and you all know what the scholars say about hindsight–it’s 20/20. But I’m a Jew with poor eyesight, so sod off.
Needless to say, this term, my first as an upperclassman, feels much different. I am taking the hardest courses I have ever taken; I am challenging my most fundamental beliefs about the world; I am dipping my scholastic toes into foreign waters. And yet, I do not doubt my ability to come to some understanding of the material I am being exposed to. I am perfectly secure in my current nonunderstanding because I am confident in my ability to come to some sort of understanding of that material sometime in the not-so-distant future.
What I have been describing feels pretty abstract, so let me give you a concrete example. In the second term of my sophomore year, I decided to take a high-level political theory lecture. By “high-level” I mean reading the early Marx, and if you have any familiarity with the early Marx, you will know that reading the early Marx feels like you’re reading a riddle in a foreign language. That is to say, you understand approximately nothing. I remember taking an hour to complete six pages of reading and not coming away from that hour with a better understanding of the material than when I had begun reading. Understandably, I was frustrated by this because I felt I was going nowhere, and I was also not of the belief that I could ever get anywhere with this material.
What I did not know then, was that I did indeed have the capacity to learn this material. With the help of my patient professor during many office hour sessions and the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s gifted contributors, I gained some semblance of an understanding. I only say some understanding because no, a nineteen-year-old chump does not and cannot wholly understand the early Marx, but I digress.
Contrasting this experience with my current reality: I am now taking several higher-level theory courses. Most of them cover topics that I did not even know existed prior to four weeks ago. I am reading the hardest material I have ever had to wrestle with. Just the other day, it took me an hour to read four pages of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Did I understand anything I read? It is Hegel, so no (and I’ve been assured that Hegel wouldn’t have wanted it any other way). Yet, what is different about this confusion is that I am not insecure in my capacity to eventually gain some understanding of what I am studying. I have enough confidence in my ability to unravel this material at some later date. I know that I will get there. Eventually.
There is something really rewarding about this newfound confidence. I can actually see, feel and know that I have made progress as a thinker, not necessarily because I know more–because I am not sure that I do–but because I have the capacity to learn most of what I put my brain to. Sure, there are things, like quantum physics, that I will likely never know because, well, I am simply not smart enough to understand quantum physics. But transworld identity in the context of Naming and Necessity? Sure, I could tackle that one.
I have not lived long enough to be giving advice, so I’ll just stick to recommendations: I recommend to all, but especially to lowerclassmen, to get comfortable in the unknown. It is perfectly alright, and indeed wonderful and necessary, not to know. However, do not get so caught up in all that you do not know such that it stops you from learning.