I keep thinking: What is the one value that, if I could, I would imbue onto my freshman self? More specifically, what is something my freshman self was totally oblivious to that I now find important? Is there even anything like that?
A few particular ideas come to mind, but there is one general theme to which a lot of those ideas belong. Humility. I have in mind both humility generally, but also a specific type of humility. Epistemic or intellectual humility — calibrating the strength of my beliefs to the quality of my evidence and tempering what it is that I think I know.
Humility comes across as a kind of passive virtue. It seems in a way to clash with our “individualistic” predilections — apparently placing emphasis on deference and submissiveness. But the opposite is true — in fact, humility is an august virtue, robust in its ability to deal with novel situations and requiring far greater assurance and self-confidence than the veil of arrogant certitude.
The ultimate caricature, to me, is the politician pounding their chest and indignantly denouncing whatever is the outrage du jour. It is people like this, who are the most strident in their convictions despite being exposed to only the same limited and distorted evidence the rest of us are, that are the most ludicrous. You will meet a lot of people like that at Cornell and probably be one of them at some point. I certainly have been. Your intelligence, grades and the idea that you are part of an elite and exclusive club will give you a sense of conviction and certitude. You will think yourself righteous, imposing and powerful.
But in fact the people who are most sure of themselves are the most porcelain — vulnerable to shattering because their stances are made fragile by the weak foundation on which their grandiose claims stand. For those humble intellectually, there is no need to be prideful and you will not make yourself ridiculous because you have the confidence to admit that all there is to go on is the evidence. And so you don’t need to hinge your beliefs and self-worth on some sort of grand “thing.” The evidence will suffice.
Especially as a high-schooler and at the beginning of college too, I always felt myself trying to find the “thing.” The sort of ultimate “thing” — that was true and right and was like a sword I could wield to cut through my complex environment, focus on and that would justify me as a person even if everything fell by the wayside. At a time, for me, it was the overarching ideal of “the law.” I thought if I knew the law and could argue and reason legally, I would be significant and great and respected. For some it is religion. For some it is their fraternity — or being sociable or being attractive or handsome. For others, it is music or a sport or writing or their ardent political beliefs. It is that one thing we feel we are sure of — it is all at once a righteous source of motivation, the most important skill or talent, a trump card to any fault or weakness and something that makes you more important and enlightened than everyone else.
I think probably most of us have something that we are really great at, and even if not, it is not hard to persuade ourselves that we do. So, it then becomes easy to convince yourself that you have found “the thing.” But what I’ve come to realize and accept since my first year in college is that there is no such “thing”” — it is just a way to bring order to the world and make us feel better about who we are and what we choose to do.
So, rather than leaving Cornell lauding myself for knowing more than when I first came in, I hope I can leave with the humbling insight that the amount of things I’m now aware that I don’t know is far greater than I might have ever realized.
Sebastian Deri is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.