The power of “I don’t know”         

We are supposed to have opinions, have things figured out. Taxes, gasoline, housing, transportation, diet, clothing, schooling. “You should do this…” “I read that…” “But you know, it’ really not about…” We respect people who speak with authority and affirmation. In PhD programs I think we are given a lot of latitude to be Authorities on Stuff. We get a special immunity from critique in the outside world because we’re supposed to know a lot of stuff and we’re ostensibly smart enough to become professional students. (Know, by the way, that this is the polar opposite within the towers of academia; there, unfortunately, people are also smart enough to smell bulls**t a mile off.)


At CUNY last night, we had an open house to host prospective students who wanted to learn about the program. I sat with different people and heard a wide range of impressive things: someone who had started his own mentoring program, another person who worked as an advocate for students with disabilities, a third who had created fashion videos for an online course for a friend who wanted to connect education and design. Of course very impressive, and for the billionth time already, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to be here? Everyone here is so sure of themselves!” But I remember one young woman sitting at a table with me and a couple of other people. She quietly listened, focused yet with a different motivation, it seemed, that many of the rest of the people there. I asked her what she was interested in, what she might want to do in a PhD program.

“You know…I don’t know.”

I loved that. How true, how real to say that to someone in a situation where most people are trying to seem casual about how amazing they are while also being mildly impressive with their perfectly crafted elevator speeches! I told her that that was where real learning started, and that she was in the perfect place to start to figure out her big questions.

Thinking about what is going on in today’s world, everyone is trying to have The Answer. With the no-indictment decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, bloggers and journalists are scrambling for their laptops to write the groundbreaking story on “the only way to end police violence.” This story in the Daily Beast, for example, does point to an important issue – the historical dehumanization of Black people in this country as a direct cause of both the violence and the ignorance/ignoring of this violence in the dominant White community in this country – but I’m taking issue with the headline.

Are we in an era when we need to act like we know, even when we don’t and can’t completely know? You could argue that a thoughtful, critical mind should be reading as many of the news sources of the moment to understand what’s going on in the world right now, and I think that’s a priority especially when our country is rupturing into a wild and heaving cry that we haven’t heard for eons about racial prejudice and oppression as a community issue rather than a sectarian, political, or academic one.

Yet it’s the weeping that keeps catching our ears even as we read, as we seek to disappear into the words of others about the deaths, the destruction of Black lives and Black families, rather than give this grief our full attention. Perhaps it cannot be until we truly listen – until we truly say, “I don’t know” – that we can begin to understand more fully. When we stop acting as though we with the pedigreed degrees and affirmative, wordy ways of speaking know what is true, and start listening, really listening, to what is going on, to the depth and rawness and madness and pain of our neighbors, our lovers, our strangers, our country…maybe that’s where real learning can start. It is a howl, a moan of grief that has been woven into our country’s voice for years. Let’s hope we – and I mean all of us, as Americans – haven’t forgotten how to listen.

La Guitarra
by Federico García Lorca

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil
Es imposible
Llora monótona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
Llora por cosas
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.


The weeping of the guitar
The goblets of dawn
are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar
to silence it.
to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
to silence it.
It weeps for distant
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.

Translation taken from


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