Like many other Stanford students, once you get me started, I have a strong opinion about many things. Yet, in everyday life, there are several questions to which my answer can be unexpectedly impartial. What do you feel like eating? Which movie do you want to see? What do you want to do now? Any of the above. No preference. I don’t know, and I don’t care.
As the above might imply, I consider myself an even-keel person. I am not one of those dominant, fearless-leader types who have an answer to and a goal for everything, one of those people who sweep others along in the sheer force of their plans. My distaste for making decisions goes so far that my family used to tease me that I had commitment issues. “I can see both sides,” I’d say, and hem and haw about matters as inconsequential as which book to check out from the library.
Even concerning less everyday topics, I sometimes have a hard time making a case for one thing over another. Likewise, I sometimes have a hard time defining myself or other people within the realms of a specific category. Our identities, after all, are in constant flux, and different places, people and circumstances prompt us to slide from one role or perspective to another. No one aspect of life indeed can denote us truly, and I sometimes resist absolute answers just as I sometimes resist making even the most minor decisions. I am intrigued by complexity and inconsistency, since which of us can say that we are always consistent with ourselves? I am often of two minds.
This sort of inconclusiveness, in some ways, opposes outside perceptions of what Stanford students are supposed to be like. I sometimes cringe at telling people that I go to Stanford. The reasons for this vary, but one is the assumptions that can come with the self-designated label of being a Stanford student: that I’m one of those smart, confident individuals who have their act together, who know the answer not only to those tough homework assignments but also to the question of how to go and be successful and who are gunning for that answer without so much as a backward glance. We at Stanford know that this stereotype is not always true. We may be serious students, but like all people, we don’t have all the answers. We do frequently have large aspirations, but we can struggle with finding one way with which to reconcile all our desires, passions and interests.
One simplistic perception of education is that its function is to teach us the right answer or to give us the tools to go about finding it. After all, we spend most of our academic years shooting for the correct answer on tests and trying to figure out the right or “educated” way to do things. The more highly educated we are, according to this binary viewpoint, the more we will have proved ourselves as good at being right. We will be able to make complex decisions and back them up with irrefutable evidence. What is more, we will be able to point to our degree to justify the extent of our knowledge.
I think most of us can see the flaws that arise from this binary perspective. Being “right” isn’t always knowledge; it can also be arrogance. Education can give us answers, yes, and learning the standard methodologies of a particular field is important, but in a liberal arts setting, education more often serves to raise further questions. All of us have heard that maxim that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Even in the physical sciences, where the objects and concepts being studied are supposedly more concrete, assumptions are made about existent variables or conditions, and the farther we get outside of the theoretical vacuum, the more complex life becomes. As with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, sometimes it just isn’t possible to know everything or to classify everything as one thing or the other.
Most of us become starkly aware of the gray areas inherent in our fields of academic study, but we can be less skilled at recalling them in our social lives. After all, humans do have an inherent tendency to categorize everything — even ourselves, whether it is in a census questionnaire or an informal introduction at a party. These classifications can make life simpler, but they can also make us miss out on the wonderfully strange occurrences all around us. It is far more valuable to approach education and life with a questioning mind than a determination to place everything neatly in a box.
Over the last two quarters, I’ve tried to break down such dualities and concrete labels. I’ve tried to explore the complexity of moments in which we realize that we or our peers or our world can be defined as neither one thing nor the other. And, dear readers, it’s been fun. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Rachel wants to hear what you’ve been on the fence about this year. Send her your thoughts on this or any of her columns at [email protected].