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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Livin’ in the World Today: Living Experiments

< I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.”
-Walt Whitman

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing”

I love experiments. To conduct an experiment one needs, among other traits, curiosity, creativity, patience and humility–curiosity to want to learn something; creativity to design the experiment; patience to handle errors and missteps; and most importantly, humility, because the willingness to run an experiment implicitly admits one’s inability to know outcomes with certainty, even when one’s expertise might be unparalleled.

Although in future columns I will likely write about more concrete issues and events of the day, it seems appropriate that my first piece is about experiments and their importance because, as I have little idea how my writing will be received, an experiment is precisely what this column is. Furthermore, college is supposed to be all about experimentation. Whether students are experimenting with how much sleep they need, how to manage their time effectively or how much Milwaukee’s Best they can handle, college, and really the growing-up process in general, is much about learning the rules of the road through experimentation.

However, while we all know this, it is important to remember that after college the experimenting never really stops. As I watch our society today, especially our politics, I worry that we have lost touch with this fact. As a nation we seem to have lost the humility to continue viewing our individual and societal evolution as just a series of experiments, regardless of the stakes.

Through various forms of media we are continually bombarded by people claiming they havethe answer to a problem and the expertise to solve what ails a certain part of society. Whether it be pundits showing off their insights and predictions, or politicians claiming that their policy prescription, be it tax cuts or increased spending (or both if you’re W), is what the country needs, claims of having the special formula pervade our public forums.

David Brooks, in a recent column for the New York Times, wrote about our country’s growing immaturity. He argued that the response and rhetoric of our public figures are largely reflections of how the country has become dependent on our public servants continually acting like Mommy and Daddy who know everything and can handle anything. We seem to forget the fact that our public servants, though often presented as flawless, are anything but.While the best decision-makers are those who can balance all the pieces of information that are currently present, we must remember that information is never complete, nor ever perfect, in any situation.

In politics, the term “gaffe” is commonly understood as someone speaking the truth when it is politically inconvenient. Vice President Biden is a poster boy for this idea, and last year when discussing the stimulus bill, he perfectly demonstrated the honesty and humility I wish more people would embrace. Speaking about the impact the 787 billion dollar stimulus bill would have on the economy and the chance it would give the nation of recovering, he said that even if everyone agreed that the legislation was perfect, there would still be a thirty percent chance it would not work. Acting as a reflection of why our political system seems to be in a polarized state of immaturity, the country displayed this immaturity with its outrage. Even President Obama, swayed by the public’s need for certainty, distanced himself from Biden’s comment. Instead of accepting, as Brooks writes, that our human institutions and policymakers are facing challenges beyond their capacity, in over their heads because they are just that, human, we expect our authority figures to have the answers to all of our problems even when they of course lack the expertise to deal with dilemmas previously unseen.

Now, I do not wish to suggest that feeling or arguing a position with conviction is a bad thing but rather that, when we do so, we must still understand that there is a decent chance things will not turn out the way we had hoped. In addition, it is vital to acknowledge when one simply does not have the knowledge to technically solve a problem. When exercising leadership, much of the key to solving a tough problem is having the humility to know that no one person has the right answer, that to find the solution requires viewing ideas not as answers from some all-knowing authority but rather as experiments where the outcomes are not known.

When I think about progress, about cultural and societal evolution, I think about experimentation, about trial and error. On a macro level, I think about from where we have come and the different ways humans have lived. On the micro level, I think about from where I have come, how I have changed and the way my life has changed. When I think about how we as humans have changed throughout our existence, how I have changed throughout my existence, I am struck by the singular question with which we as communities and as individuals continue to grapple: how do we live the best lives possible?

Perhaps we would be better off to simply view humanity as in the quest to find an answer to this question, continually striving for knowledge and understanding while accepting uncertainty and mystery.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian Columnist

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