Realizations In Saying ‘I Don’t Know’ More

Image via Ardalis

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This semester, I am privileged to take “Music and Nation in the Arab World” with Professor Mohamed Alsiadi, Senior Lecturer in the Arabic Department at Fordham, an astounding professor and an exceptionally talented musician. Alsiadi is incredibly wise and intelligent. He has a gift where he can energize academic spaces with profound kindness and authenticity. One day, at the beginning of the semester, to wrap up one of our class discussions, he ended on the note, “It is a really beautiful phrase… I don’t know,” and encouraged his students to “stop searching, to know – don’t know.” I found these closing thoughts captivating. I jotted them down quickly and walked out of class refreshed and inspired, as I often do. 

I reflected on what it meant to embrace the phrase ‘I don’t know.’ This was a mindset shift. It encouraged me to reflect on my intentions when learning to ensure that my pursuits are not grounded in external validation. I fell back in love with my mind once I stopped fighting my curiosity. In turn, this authentic inquiry would ensure that there would be only one reason for indulging in conversations, relationships, and academic material. 

There is something to learn from everything and everyone. 

I walked into my politics class one day, where we were doing a debate. The room was split into two, and you had to gather the evidence to argue for the side you were assigned. Previously, these settings have felt uncomfortable and robotic. Still, I ignored this, as it was something I had to do to engage in politics, get the degree, and attain what I constituted as success. This time, I found this exercise extremely distasteful; diluting a complex argument to just two sides and choosing one person to represent the group to argue the pre-decided conclusion in the most concise and persuasive diction. Choosing to engage while being mindful of my qualms, I saw the meaning in this exercise, as it mirrors U.S. politics, particularly the unsettling polarization and the value placed on articulation

Leaders shaping the nation have demanding expectations always to do or say the right thing. As long as this pressure persists, the US will be governed by an administration that feels they must throw away authenticity to be respected. This is particularly dangerous in an increasingly competitive global political environment, challenging the methodically robust political culture may not seem an option. In a world where it feels impossible to challenge the system Leaders should look to knowledge with dignity and “intellectual humility—recognizing the limits of his knowledge and valuing the insight of someone else.” Bridging connections with intellectual humility embraces the ‘I don’t know’ mentality; acknowledging that everyone has a unique story and their perspective is worth understanding. Practicing this is not just listening more but listening with intention.

Listening more refocused my attention on the influential role speech plays in politics. A sense of urgency accompanies the pressure for leaders always to have the answer. Our fast-paced world forces people to not only know it all but also be able to display that concisely. The class debate shed light on the fact this political culture is seeping into academic settings, where students should have a space that encourages them to hash out undeveloped thoughts with their peers. Through Professor Alsiadi’s encouragement to ​​“say all of the broken words,”  I envision a world where humanity prevails, cultivating a community where all voices are heard and respected.

It must no longer be shameful to admit to not knowing, especially in academic settings, so that society can move toward more humility. This cycle is debilitating for non-native speakers, who have valuable insight ready to be shared but live in an environment that sidelines their perspectives. Gloria Anzaldúa, esteemed Chicana scholar, states, “ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language.” Language plays an enormous role in culture and identity, and those courageous enough to approach a foreign culture and try their best to speak the language should be respected and honored. 

Like the Grateful Dead says, “wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” Embracing the phrase “I don’t know” reflects a willingness to remove cultural lenses and work to see the world as someone else does. Removing the pressure of diction will cultivate a more patient, unpretentious, and knowledgeable society. Have no shame in the “I don’t know’s” — learn together.

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This article was edited by Hannorah Ragusa and Matthew Quirindongo.