I was thinking about a little bit of conservative polemics that I noticed during the 2012 election, although surely it is older than that. It goes something like this: Americans don’t see themselves as rich and poor; they see themselves as rich and soon-to-be rich. Now this is nonsense as politics go. Of course it isn’t true. Most poor people are just trying to get by; they don’t even have fantasies about being rich, unless it involves the state lottery. But even as an aspirational claim (We want poor Americans to think of themselves as the soon-to-be rich!) it doesn’t work. Most people don’t want to be rich. Most people want to become something and while that usually does involve making more money, it rarely involves being rich.
But last night, I was thinking about this bit of polemics in terms of education. My first wife was extremely intelligent and well read. But she was hopeless in college because she was not will to, as she would put it, “look stupid.” She was younger than I and basically just starting as a physics undergraduate when I was in graduate school. But try as I may, I could never convince her that it was fine to look stupid and ignorant and lots more. That is what school is about. In fact, if I were talking to her today, I would tell her that that is what life itself is about.
My wife is sadly not a rare specimen. I see it especially among men who, when younger, were always the smartest kid in class. But somewhere along the line, they stagnate because they think they have a reputation to uphold. They are wrong, of course. People don’t think of me as knowledgeable because I know everything about everything. The truth is that far greater minds than my own couldn’t know more than a small fraction of everything we as a species know. So admitting ignorance does not make one “look stupid.” Well, I suppose he might look stupid if Paul Krugman got up in front of a class and told them that “demand” was the function showing how much of a product suppliers would be willing to supply at a given price.
There is a terrible irony here that a person’s desire to be perceived as knowledgeable leads to them being less knowledgeable than they would be if they didn’t worry about it. So I have an idea that I fully admit that I’m stealing from the Republicans. “People aren’t knowledgeable or ignorant; they are knowledgeable or soon-to-be knowledgeable.” Although the truth is, I’m not even quite happy with that. Because I’m a pretty knowledgeable person, but I don’t think there isn’t a person on the earth who doesn’t have concrete information to give to me. (Well, barring babies and people in vegetative states.) So maybe it is better to say, “People aren’t knowledgeable or ignorant; they are all soon-to-be more knowledgeable.”
One of the most annoying things people say to me is, “I’m not that smart.” It’s also heartbreaking. I always wonder who told them that. I also imagine a lot of people were given tests when they were younger. When I was in school, starting 45 years ago, I remember being tested all the time. We test even more now. But I was always thrown into the advanced math classes and the slow English classes. But I was blessed and cursed with a rebel’s soul, and now I figure I know more about literature and writing than 99% of the all of the teachers in all the pre-college schools I went to (and I went to a lot). Because it doesn’t really matter how smart you are (and I don’t even really know what “smart” means anymore). And it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. If you love learning—and I think we all do naturally—you are soon-to-be even more knowledgeable.
Never fear, let your love make you brave: your ignorance will soon make you more knowledgeable!