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Socratic wisdom

Joey King | Sunday, March 22, 2009

Some things change with every freshman class.

Statistics improve. Every year it will be smarter, more accomplished, and better at making college applications than its predecessors.

The obvious transitions are made – it will be composed of a different amount of different individuals who will go on to interact in new and distinct ways with their peers and professors.

Policies change – each year, the incoming freshmen will experience greater drinking restrictions and penalties than the preceding class (in the form of new University regulations, more thorough police enforcement, or the rising opportunity cost of college drinking generated by the superinflationary increase of tuition prices).

Some things don’t change.

Whatever the brightness statistics, the average entering class will always think it’s pretty damned special to be here, and with good reason. Admission is becoming more difficult everywhere. They don’t go to Directional State U. and they’re proud of it. As a freshman, answering “I go to Notre Dame” is impossible to do without pride sliding just a little into arrogance. And, for all the regulating, Keystone Light will continue to have a market outside of America’s trailer parks.

I want to focus here on the arrogance, since it’s most pronounced for freshmen. A major part of your college education will be learning just what exactly you know and don’t know, and you’re four years behind on it, coming right out of the place where you did know everything.

I’m not trying to preach modesty here. This arrogance – which is so definitive of the freshman class – is exactly what helps you to try new things and fully explore your newfound independence. If anything, it should be amplified. Just about everything that happens to you on the weekends here won’t happen with such regularity after college, and never in the same way. But the experience will make up a huge part of the people you become when you leave here.

But back to learning what you know and don’t know. Don’t channel any arrogance into assuming you know what comes best from experience. Instead, appreciate the experience you lack and fix it as fast as possible. Put all your pride-inspired confidence into your weekend shenanigans and other enlightening antics.

Most importantly, do not write letters to the editor that highlight your experience deficit. Writing a vitriolic letter is usually a good way to tell people you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Anyone well-versed in an editorial subject will recognize the ambiguity of the question that made it worth debating in the first place, instead of casting aspersions at the grammar of previous letters. It makes you look like an idiot, and it makes me look like an idiot for publishing it if nothing better comes in.

However evil you find birth control, abortion, or the Keenan Revue, no one will respect your post-high school opinion if you devolve into ranting. It’s too obvious you haven’t properly examined the question.

But is it okay to devolve into verbal ranting over a generous (perhaps too generous) share of Natty Light on a Wednesday?

Yes. When you’re in college. And only when you recognize that this is only one amid a limitless list of experience-building options, and one where you aren’t making other people read its haphazard arrangement in the pages of The Observer the next day.

The main discrepancy I want to highlight here is experience versus assumed wisdom. Bad letters to the editor are only one highly tangible example of this, and the one that I’ve become most familiar with. Please don’t assume that drinking Natural Light is the recommended path to wisdom through experience, even if alcohol can accelerate the Socratic realization that you know nothing. Just chase experience for its own sake.

But keep in mind that such a Socratic acceleration can’t really be a bad thing.

Joey King is a senior mechanical engineering major with an interest in philosophy. Regarding Socratic acceleration, he would quote Heraclitus’ caution: “It is better to hide ignorance, but it is hard to do this when we relax over wine.” He can be contacted at jking7@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.