"My father died when he was 103 years old. He died knowing nothing. I’m 76. I’ve studied capoeira since I was 12, but I still haven’t learned anything. I know nothing, and I too will die knowing nothing.” I was floored. The old man speaking had cloudy blue eyes that only come with old age and hair as white as snow—snow, which he has never seen during his long life in the tropical city of Salvador, Brazil. Mestre Curió is a respected master of capoeira, the centuries-old Afro-Brazilian tradition that blends martial art and dance. He has his own capoeira center that has flourished through decades of his leadership. Capoeira students young and old make pilgrimages to his center from all over the world. And yet he says that he knows nothing—about capoeira, or anything else.
I’d never heard anyone talk like this. Why did Mestre Curió downplay his knowledge and his accomplishments? Why did a renowned teacher claim to know nothing about the subject he teaches? Imagine this happening on a college campus. A school newspaper reporter interviews a famous tenured professor of Spanish history on the eve of her retirement. “You’re considered an expert in your field. You’ve written well-received books on the Moors in the Middle Ages, the Napoleonic period and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Which century do you know best?” The professor says, “I can’t say I know much about any period of Spanish history. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve learned very much about anything in my 50 years of studying and teaching.”
The reporter would politely but hurriedly wrap up the interview with a few cursory questions—not out of interest, but to avoid hurting the professor’s feelings. Naturally, the reporter’s editor would tell him to forget about the story. “Who wants to read about an old lady who says she doesn’t know anything? We still need a human-interest story, though. Something more important that our audience actually wants to read about … Aha! Do another front-page spread about the switch to two-ply toilet paper.”
My point is genuine, intellectual humility like Mestre Curió’s appears about as often on a “highly selective” college campus as Richard Brodhead appears on the Colbert Report. That is, not often.
What is intellectual humility? I would define it as acknowledgement of our woefully incomplete understanding of the world. It might be an exaggeration to say, “I know nothing, and I too will die knowing nothing.” But we do need a willingness to feel ignorant. We acknowledge that we don’t truly know how the world works even in the face of humanity’s amazing discoveries—from DNA structure to human psychology to the obscure new location of the Duke Card office.
A willingness to feel ignorant? But I go to Duke! I got into this top-ranked school and earned my parents the privilege of paying my weight in gold every year—plus my weight in biology textbooks, which apparently cost more per ounce. My admission letter definitely came with a gold-embossed bumper sticker proclaiming, “Never Wrong.” We can give presentations on books we haven’t read (guilty as charged) and proffer our opinions on military assistance to countries we’ve never visited. We go to an elite school, and aren’t we special? Ignorance is so, like, high school.
Before arriving in Brazil, I thought I more or less understood the country. I took Brazilian Portuguese for a year and a half. I studied the country’s politics and wrote a paper on its dictatorship. I’d heard that race functions differently there but I felt ready to understand the society’s racial dynamics—after all, I did go on Common Ground. Yet there I was, in the sweltering city of Salvador, dripping sweat, failing to comprehend the political system and utterly failing to comprehend my host mother’s explanation of exactly what went into the mushy food I ate for dinner that first night. The language struggles were particularly poignant with my young Brazilian friends. When we talked on Facebook I wondered why they would constantly reference the Ku Klux Klan, until I realized that “kkk” actually means “hahaha.” I’m pretty positive that I once asked a female friend, “Do you want to sleep together next weekend?” instead of, “Do you want to hang out together next weekend?”
I constantly felt ignorant, but I learned loads of Portuguese, more than I ever could have if I relied solely on basic phrases or avoided new topics or stuck with English-speaking friends. I had to accept constant correction and look up new words and struggle with charades to get the right verb. Only once I recognized the total inadequacy of my language skills did I start to improve. Slowly.
That’s why I want to cultivate humility like Mestre Curió’s. When I see my knowledge as complete, I stop adding to it. When I think I understand a culture or language or style of dance, I fail to deepen my understanding. Without a bit of intellectual humility we will truly die knowing nothing. We can only learn more when we stop and acknowledge just how little we really know.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.