Are we all studying for a degree in knowing absolutely nothing?

Even the greatest philosophical sayings have their resonances in the modern student’s university experience, writes Joshua Korber Hoffman

Joshua Korber Hoffman

"I am willing to bet that there are few places in the world in which Socrates’ words are repeated as often as they are in Cambridge."Pixabay

Socrates, the wisest and ugliest man in Athens, is often credited with having laid the foundations for all succeeding Western thinkers. It therefore seems surprising that Socrates is best known for saying “I know nothing.” Western thought isn’t just built on shaky foundations, but, in fact, no foundations at all.

I am willing to bet that there are few places in the world in which Socrates’ words are repeated as often as they are in Cambridge. But when Cambridge students say “I know nothing,” they don’t say it with the liberating smugness of Socrates to anyone who will listen, but they instead utter them out of rather mournful desperation alone in their room, usually staring at a blank Word document or last week’s lecture notes. “I know nothing!” they will declare, hearkening back to the Socratic belief without a shred of pride in their voices, despite having achieved the same revelation that set up all modern Western culture and thought.

The other day, I was in the library listening to the therapeutic clack-clack of the keyboards and looking at the pile of books on the desk opposite me, slightly intimidated but mainly curious as to whether he was planning on establishing a rival library. He had his earphones in, looking over what my humanities brain could only identify as “science”. He was the perfect image of studiousness – the kind of studiousness that makes us all look, well, slightly less studious. But after about five minutes he looked baffled by this “science” and grew more and more visibly agitated, eventually culminating in an audible “what?!“, a grabbing of the laptop and an exit from the library. I did not see him again.

“It is the interesting experience of a philosophy student that we are taught for three years to finally be able to say, with the backing of a Cambridge degree, 'I know nothing.'”

About ten minutes later, in which time I had made no progress on my reading (which I blame on the student wearing headphones and clearly watching a hilarious TV show based on the random outbursts of hearty laughter every few minutes), someone came to claim the tower of books. They were not the scientist’s after all – how foolish I had been to judge someone purely for comic effect. The books were claimed and what followed was a pantomimic exercise of trying to fit them all into their backpack. This laborious task of trying fit as much knowledge as possible in one Herschel bag consisted of placing them in one by one, removing them all, trying again from scratch and failing once more. I wanted to advise them that there is no law that says every book that leaves the library must be in a backpack, but I did not want to interrupt a beautifully futile act of what could only be for procrastination rather than convenience. Eventually, after great effort, they managed to squeeze the zip shut, pick up their now rectangular bag and carry the heavy weight of all that knowledge out the library, joining the other scientists in the real world.


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I relate to both of them. The desire to know things, to do well in exams, to cram as much esoteric information as I can into my human head. This, partnered with the despairing cry of “What?!” after every sentence, the desire to know nothing, the feeling that I’ll never do well in exams, and anger at the uselessness of the information I am meant to be voraciously consuming.

It is the interesting experience of a philosophy student that we are taught for three years to finally be able to say, with the backing of a Cambridge degree, “I know nothing.” But it is not just philosophy students who get this feeling. It is every student in the world who looks at a piece of paper supposed to be filled with comprehensible symbols in a familiar order, but instead ends up being presented with something that looks like gibberish and hieroglyphics. It is every student in the world who is up late at night wishing that the author could’ve just written it in bullet points (and they easily could have). It is every student in the world who is watching YouTube explanations that are more helpful than anything Cambridge has provided. It is every student in the world who exclaims out loud in a college library “What?!“, packs up and leaves.

So, it is a reassuring thought for me that, when I repeat Socrates’ ancient mantra after another fruitless library session – “I know nothing” – it is absolutely true. At least I know that.