Thursday, August 21, 2008

To be intellectually uncomfortable

From one of Uncertain Principles' link dumps comes this piece from Inside Higher Ed: Tolerant Faculty, Intolerant Students. Apparently, despite the myth of the politically stubborn professor forcing his views on poor openminded students, the truth is more like students haranguing each other and professors doing fairly well at not inappropriately expressing political views. (Well, at least in Georgia. The study might have turned out differently if done on CRAZY CALIFORNIAN COLLEGES!!!!1!11!one.)

(I should note that I have only been in actual political discourse once all year, and it was with a student on my hall who fervently supported Ron Paul. Perfectly friendly, civil discussion; I didn't enjoy it because I don't enjoy political discourse, period. I haven't seen any politics in classes, probably because I haven't taken any classes where it's even marginally relevant. Coulomb's Law? Politicize that, bitches.)

The thing that really struck me about this article, though, was one particular quote: universities are a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually. Obviously, the article means this with regard to one's political beliefs -- but it's applicable in a much larger sense.

When I encounter something I can't understand, something really confusing, I get anxious and upset. This happens a lot because I'm at a difficult school, and it's to be expected that I will encounter confusing things. But why should I get upset? This is an artifact of tying understanding to Success and Achievement (TM), rather than understanding for its own sake. Even though I went to one of those hippie elementary schools where there are no grades, I suppose I still have kind of a hang-up about 'succeeding' versus being way outside of my comfort zone.

I really admire people who respond to confusing things by first feeling humble, and then feeling happy that they have another puzzle to solve. People who get suspicious if it looks like they understand everything. It's not that I think such people never get frustrated, but that seems like a highly useful mindset for a scientist or intellectual, much more so than getting upset and frustrated. (Certainly, given the complexity of the real world, if you think you understand everything about X, you're almost certainly wrong.) This mindset should also make for a happier person overall. Apart from that, it feels like the right thing to do -- it appeals to the idealist in me.

Universities are a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually.

The world is a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually!

I'm going to try and embrace this mindset, embrace this mantra. A form of "intellectual asceticism, perhaps?" Hopefully I can change my knee-jerk reaction to the difficult and the confusing.

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