Unlearning the desire for certainty

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The pathway to knowledge

The pathway to knowledge


It was not until I was teaching anthropology 100 at City College, when I was told to use a text book that had been chosen by the previous teacher, that I was struck by how much of this same curriculum I had been taught and then forced myself to unlearn. The entire range of beginning topics from the origins of society and social structures to the role of gender were provided with so much certainty and clarity that I could see how my students—just as I had sitting in their place—really enjoyed the idea that they fully understood these fundamental aspects of human interaction.

The enjoyment of certainty is a key hook for these beginning social science classes. From history and anthropology to sociology to political science, 100 level textbooks are often written to offer clear knowledge in a top-down, authoritative voice. As an introduction to the field, they choose to highlight universals and major theories. This makes the learner believe that the state of the science is well grounded and completely understood. Having to teach this became problematic for me, as I had spent my graduates days unlearning almost all of this and reconsidering the basis for most of the field of cultural anthropology. I decided to teach from the anthro 100 textbook by treating this as another cultural artifact, and let the students in on the less enjoyable secret that, while all of these ideas were important to know about—if one wished to become a more advanced student—none of these ideas were worth knowing as a way to understand the world.

Of course, the history of anthropology is mired with fundamental ideas that have been subsequently been abandoned. The notion of “race,” for example, was developed and promoted in anthropology for more than a hundred years before the professional societies (in the 1990s, I believe) came out formally against that notion as having any physiological basis. After a hundred years of talking about this, anthropologists had already given the notion of race enormous cultural currency. And they had no real means to repair this impact.

Knowing now that social roles and cultural practices have always been contested and complex and ambiguous even in small scale societies helps me understand that the goal of the profession of the anthropologist (or the cultural studies intellectual) is not to weave a fabric of certainty out of this complexity, but to explore it further and with more patience and a different voice than any available to groups within the practices. Not more certain, just different.

Unlearning certainty is a lot less enjoyable than having this. I’ve met more than my share of anthropologists who hang on to their certainty and who write textbooks like the one from which I was supposed to teach. As a discipline, anthropology owes a great debt to feminists, who provide it with a corrective gynopology. As Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Anthropology grad students, as a cohort, tend to be more angry than their freshman peers. The truth of anthropology is that certainty is a false destination and the desire for certainty can and must be unlearned.

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