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In search of confusion

President Payne, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Three years ago, some of us took a genetics course from a professor who delighted in covering difficult material at breakneck speed. Her hand was a blur of motion against the blackboard as she transcribed what she was saying, quickly shrouding herself in a cloud of chalkdust. Eventually, she would pause, mercifully, to survey our progress. Turning away from the blackboard, she'd peer out at us through the chalky haze, only to be greeted by ninety befuddled-looking faces. "Are you confused?" she'd ask. "Good," she'd say with a wry smile. "Let's move on." And before you could say, "deoxyribonucleic acid," she'd be plunging into a new chapter.

Back then, we did not share in the professor's satisfaction that we were so completely lost. In general, being reduced to a collective "Huh?" is not an experience that we savor. Bewilderment is usually thought to be an indication of inefficiency, aimlessness, or stupidity, so we tend to be embarrassed when we're caught in such a state. This is why you were chagrined in Japanese class when your instructor asked you how to get to the library, and you advised her to intentionally walk the right fielder and to pitch the shortstop low and away.

We've all had moments when we felt as though we were trapped in that biology lecture, or that Japanese class. At times, in fact, Williams has seemed perversely bent on making us squirm and shrug. Right now may be one of those times. Many of us are unsure of where we are headed, or even exactly what we've been doing here.

But this is not how college is supposed to be, we sputter. We didn't exhaust the family treasury in order to finance a four-year exercise in disorientation and bafflement. We came to Williams so that we could fill ourselves up with knowledge we could use in the future -- kind of like a traveler who stops at a gas station to fill up in anticipation of the drive ahead. But when we pulled in for our pit stop, our professors were there, guarding the pumps. "What'll it be?" this crew of attendants asked. "Fill 'er up with unleaded," we ordered. "Well, that's an interesting idea," the attendants said diplomatically, "but how do you support your assumption that this is the best gas for your car? Can you counter the argument that this other kind has a more favorable viscosity index? Are you sure you want to purchase a full tank, in light of the petroleum pricing paradigm? Have you considered what Kant says about fossil fuels?"

Our mentors weren't merely trying to aggravate us or mystify us. They were challenging us to take a more inclusive, comprehensive view of things than we had before, even if it was also a less tidy, less organized view. For me, the most direct challenge came from my English 101 professor, who concluded his comments on an essay of mine by saying, "You just shut your eyes to any [interpretation] but the one you've chosen."

I never did take another English class after that, but I am grateful for the prodding of that professor and other faculty and students like him. They have gotten us to confront and grapple with as many competing ideas as possible, adding new levels of meaning to our discussions and papers. They have forced us to probe subjects so thoroughly that we can now see their full, infinite complexity. It scares us and stupefies us -- but it also educates us.

If Williams has made us less sure of ourselves, then it has accomplished its mission. If we feel disconcerted now and then, it is because we haven't been permitted to satisfy ourselves with simple answers and broad generalizations. Instead, we've been challenged to confront the ambiguities and contradictions in what we study and how we live. Our confusion is an indication that we have matured intellectually during our years at Williams and that we are now ready to go elsewhere in search of greater, even more profound confusion. So I ask you: Are you confused?

Good. Let's move on.