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Op Ed: I Know Nothing

*the following opinion does not necessarily represent the views of middbeat as a whole

from Murphy Roberts ’17:

Tbh, I know nothing… And I’m starting to realize that’s not a bad thing.

Recently, I came to the realization that I have fulfilled all the academic requirements (but the senior seminar) to garner my degree a little over a year from now.

That’s scary.

It seems like just yesterday I stumbled into an introductory international politics class on a whim. A wide eyed, awkward, and uncertain Freshman. Yet, suddenly I am (apparently) effectively prepared to graduate from Middlebury with a degree in Political Science and Geography. It’s not that I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough. People named Dry, Stanger, and Williams made certain of that. It is very easy to simply ingest and regurgitate information, especially when it is fed you in quantities that often disable your ability to digest it all. During my time at Middlebury, my academic experience has been largely theoretical and historical. There has been little need to develop what any of it means in the physical context. Blinded by academic, athletic, and social commitments, the collective and controlled chaos that is Middlebury College is conducive toward driving its students to adopt a standard of excellence characterized by organization, friendly competitiveness, and perseverance.

To what end is all of this? I suppose I know an incredible amount about the dynamics of the Cold War and how a change in interest rates affects the behavior of international trade. Every single class I have taken at Midd has been incredibly valuable in a traditional academic sense. Yet I am just realizing that all this has solely pushed me deeper into the greater paradox of learning:

The more you learn, the less you know. I know about a lot. I know nothing.

This summer, when I wasn’t working at my (rather unrewarding) internship at non-profit, I worked just across the street at an upscale Burger joint as a line cook. Although the CCI deemed this occupation as a superfluous and irrelevant to my résumé, grinding out long days behind a massive flattop grill in downtown Denver taught me a lot more about the world than any international politics class or marketing internship ever could.

I quickly learned that an education from a selective liberal arts institution meant nothing in this environment. My two supervisors included the Kenyan born son of a Norwegian diplomat and Kenyan mother who had come to Colorado seven years earlier on a soccer scholarship, and a Marine vet who had lost four of his fingers and earned two purple hearts in Iraq ten years ago. On the line, my team consisted of a six-foot-six-inch former convict who had been released from a four-year sentence in jail three months prior and enjoyed calling me “baby face” and “college boy”, a girl less than one year my elder who had just given birth to her second child, and a heavily tattooed and fiery thirty-something woman who worked on average seventy hour weeks so that she and her fiancé could pay for their wedding and a honeymoon in September because her father didn’t support gay marriage and refused to help pay for anything. In this environment, I was reduced to a lost boy. A “well read” lost boy – sure. But lost nonetheless.

Growing up as a competitive alpine skier in a small ski resort town in rural Colorado attracted me to Middlebury. It was a natural transition. Upon arrival, I fully embraced and immersed myself in the prototypical culture of the Middlebury student-athlete. My hectic and often ambitious schedule became the source of my pride. I was comforted by the countless hours in the gym, up at the Snow Bowl, and in the library. It became a way to identify myself and I ignorantly reveled in that. Within a few weeks of working at the burger joint, I learned that all of that meant nothing.

The paradox of the culture on campus is that we are so often entrenched in trying to understand where we fit in a particular moment—all the while constantly stressing the significance of where we’re going—that we often overlook the importance of not only our individual pasts, but the backgrounds of those around us as well. I don’t think this is something that any of us intentionally do, but I feel we so often are caught up not only in the Middlebury bubble, but the bubble of our lives. This is not any of our faults. This is not something that we can necessarily reverse. But, collectively we can change it.

The significance of a liberal arts education is that it not only allows, but encourages, us to learn about an immensely diverse array of social, cultural, economic, etcetera ideologies from around the world. However, it does not play into the very fabric of our education. Ultimately, the majority of us are striving toward highlighting our transcript. For me, going to Monterey (MIIS) to take classes in the Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies school seemed like a way to explore something I was interested in while also bolstering my academic transcript. However, taking classes in the field of terrorism ultimately overwhelmed me with a sense of ignorant privilege that I had never found while at Middlebury. No longer was I engaging in theoretical conversations about whether or not containment was a logical policy against the Soviets with like-minded liberal western students in the comforts of Middlebury College, an environment where the greatest source of tension is from students trying to outdo one another in intellectual rhetoric (anyone who has ever been in a 300 level PoliSci discussion knows what I mean). Suddenly, I found myself getting into a debate about the morality of Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism against Indian occupation of Kashmir with a forty year old Pakistani woman who systematically turned my argument upside down as she began to tell her personal plight of Indian oppression, passionately lecturing me about the inequality and methods of terrorism that had been imposed on Muslims in Indian society and how she had lost five innocent relatives to Indian militancy in Kashmir.

As I sat across from her at the seminar table, I found it difficult to respond with anything of substance despite the hundreds of pages of reading I had done on the subject to prepare for my argument. I was just a boy from Colorado whose most exotic exposure to foreign culture thus far was when I went skiing for five weeks in New Zealand. I simply sat silently waiting, unsuccessfully, for any of my classmates to say anything. The professor proceeded to change the subject of debate as my formerly amicable Pakistani classmate forced back a scowl from across the table.

I knew about a lot. Ultimately, I knew nothing.

What I have learned during my time at Middlebury is that our curriculum is designed to make us uncomfortable in the most comfortable manner. My curriculum as a PoliSci major and Geography minor often fails to contextualize itself and materialize as anything more than another Foreign Affairs journal article. I am often left feeling a great sense of accomplishment thinking about all that I have learned, yet am careless to what it all means. Our tuition is certainly costly. However, our education has been fueled by greater and greater costs. These articles and case studies do not exist in a vacuum, but come at the cost of others around the world. The most profound part of my learning has not come from readings, writings, or problem sets, but from simply thinking about why and how something came to be. The more I have learned, the more I have realized how little I know.  As daunting of a theory as that may be, it has ultimately ignited my education beyond the traditional academic realm of Middlebury.

I retired/quit/stepped away/however you want to frame it from the sport of alpine ski racing almost two months ago after a long series of injuries and the ultimate realization that my career as a skiier would not determine the path of my life. Although I remain an active member on the team (in a non-athletic capacity), it has opened up my schedule massively and allowed me to engage with aspects of this campus that I never before had time to acknowledge. I have learned so much more about life and the world simply through conversations with my peers than I have in a classroom setting. We close ourselves up to honest conversation when we immerse ourselves in a classroom setting. It seems in this environment things can only be contextualized in the strictest of forms and rarely are we able to truly understand the realities of this world because we are too caught up in the formalities. Face to face conversation shatters this and allows us to engage and better understand what we deem as uncomfortable.

Talk with your suitemates.

Talk with your teammates.

Talk with your parents.

Talk with that one kid you met that one time and seems like a cool kid.

Talk about your thoughts beyond what you have read, written, or spoken in class.

The world is a very massive and very complicated place. I cannot even pretend to know a fraction about it. The best we can do is share one another’s thoughts and most importantly, our experiences with one another in order to better visualize the world.

The most significant thing we all can do to augment our wisdom is to admit our own sense of ignorance. The more that we learn, the more we realize how little we know. Ultimately, that is a good thing if you see it in the right way. Our lives are a blank Google doc and I’d like to invite everyone to edit mine. Tell me a story. I’ll tell you one in return.

5 thoughts on “Op Ed: I Know Nothing

  1. Hey bud, you put into words my feelings about my life in Middlebury. You have a way with words and even further, with ideas. This type of realization is what ¨highly reputed¨ college like Middlebury needs. Life is ultimately no about grades, or late-nighters, or exams – but it is about the one time you ran across the snowy golf field with a close friend talking about the least significant thing, it’s about the one time you sat across from the crowd in Ross sipping your coffee thinking absolutely nothing, and so on. Time has come to realize that books and knowledge are enhancements in life, but not life itself.

    1. Dear Friend,

      I look forward to reunited across from you sipping coffee together talking about absolutely nothing. Time flies and I look forward to hearing about your time away and the stories you have.

      Till then…

  2. there is no conviction as certain as that of the ignoramus — you have articulated the opposite — the humility of the educated

  3. Nice, Murphy. Spot on.
    My (concise version) theory on Middlebury is that it really is just a safe container for a few years that we enter as a naive (but thinking we already have life figured out) high school graduate, and exit four years later a supposedly more enlightened member of greater community. Classes and sport and other activity just are an activity to keep us occupied, the real learning is what happens in the spaces all between as you articulated well, and the real point is to have a support system while we navigate who we are and what it means to exist in this world.
    Wish I had read before Friday night to share thoughts better. But keep crushing.

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