Most people would assess themselves and conclude they are pretty smart. They might recall the last article on current events they read, or the score they made on their last big test, and pull up a chair to the table with history’s greatest minds.
I once thought being the smartest guy in the room was all I wanted out of life; now, as a senior in the dimming twilight of my college career, I don’t ever want to be the smartest guy in the room, because I would never again feel the thrill of learning something new.
I believe it is absolutely vital to educate yourself and learn as much as possible in your time on this earth. Human beings have the most developed mental faculties out of all creation, and we should marshal every inch of cranial tissue toward the acquisition of new perspectives and facts. I intend to do that; there is nothing wrong with learning.
The problem arises when one believes their lessons are complete, that their record of knowledge is infallible. They see the high mark they made on their term paper as Everest’s peak, the pinnacle of intellectual progress with a laurel-covered couch on which to rest waiting for them. Such a rest is an illusion, for the acquisition of knowledge is a lifelong process that ends either when our pride tells us to stop, or in death.
Sometimes, just as a matter of fact, one might find themselves the most knowledgeable person in the room. But when that person begins to think that they are the smartest person in every room, they demonstrate a prejudice that limits them from learning anything they do not already know. Their pride prevents them from the hard-to-swallow yet necessary vitamin of being wrong.
Knowledge is a perspective unique to every person. Just because I made an A in the Roman history class I took last semester, does not mean I am guaranteed an A if I were to take a class on integral calculus. It’s possible I might know the most about the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero out of the people in that classroom, but I would without a doubt know the least about integral calculus. My expertise in one area does not grant me expertise in another, and I would be foolish if I thought it did.
Think of the first time something made sense to you, in school, in life, wherever. I remember feeling my whole world widen after reading a sentence as a child, and knowing that I could open any other book and figure out what it meant. Knowledge of any subject is like that: a door behind which is another door.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell interrogates John Worthing to determine if he would be a suitable husband for her daughter, Gwendolyn. Among questions about his politics and personal life, Bracknell asks Worthing whether he knows, “either everything, or nothing.” If I were asked whether I knew everything or nothing, I would feel tempted to save face and say that I know everything. In the first case, I would be a liar, and in the second case, I might fail if asked to prove it.
The price of learning is acknowledging what you do not know. Opening a book, attending a class, even talking to a person whom you do not know, requires sacrificing ignorance and pride for education and enlightenment. You may think you know everything, but you might surprise yourself when you finish that first chapter, take that first test, or start that conversation. Never limit yourself to what you know; never listen to the internal lie that you know all you need to know.