When I was in second grade, I was tasked with walking my younger brother (then in kindergarten) home from school. This was a job I took very seriously, feeling a sense of pride in taking over a brotherly duty that my older brother had done for me when I was in kindergarten. The opportunity to be the older brother, the one trusted to return my sibling home safe and sound was something I relished. In spite of my excitement of being thought of as reliable and mature, my brother regularly returned home without me. When asked where I was (Had I ditched him to play with my friends? Had I simply forgotten?) my brother always told my parents that I had, in fact, walked him about halfway home, but then stopped to look at a bug or something. He would humor me for a while, but eventually got tired of waiting, and would just go the last couple blocks on his own. I can remember more than one occasion where I had dallied so long that my parents came looking for me. Sure enough, I was fixated on a fuzzy caterpillar or swarm of ants. All this is to say that I’ve always been a nerd, which is to say, I’ve always been fascinated by things most of the world doesn’t care about.
To some degree, I think all kids are kind of nerds; they are fascinated by everything about the world around them, from why the sky is blue to what sounds barnyard animals make. There are countless examples of this, from the fairly common anecdote of the kid who’s more interested in the box than the toy in it, or the fact that even the most patient parents eventually find the persistent “whys” of a young child grating:
I think all kids eventually learn that this behavior is incredibly annoying, and most decide to stop. Kids only really have two options for doing this: 1. Stop asking the questions or 2. Stop asking the questions out loud. I dug myself pretty firmly in the latter camp, deciding that I could probably figure out most of the answers on my own. That attitude is beyond confident for a grade schooler — it’s downright cocky. That kind of initiative probably makes it sound like I didn’t value teachers and school, but I really didn’t discriminate as to where I got my information. I just wanted as much knowledge as I could possibly get, from wherever I could get it. I loved school, and continued to appreciate it even when I would butt heads with teachers in high school (usually because I disagreed with an opinion they were foisting as a fact, but I’m certain my youth made me more petulant than was really necessary). I started to question the very nature of authority, with my own value system starting to supersede that of the school (grades, attendance, etc). I still desired knowledge, I just wasn’t interested in jumping through hoops.
There’s nothing particularly unique about a rebellious teen or a smart slacker, which I think explains why I didn’t have any trouble getting into college (I suppose at that age, thwarted potential doesn’t have to remain thwarted), so my biggest problem was deciding what I wanted to do in college (and thus, where I wanted to go). I was interested in biology and music, so pursued programs that would allow for a double major (or two simultaneous degree programs, as the case was for some). Programs like this tended to abound in liberal arts schools. I didn’t really know what people meant by the “liberal arts,” but I knew that my parents had earned BAs in things that didn’t really apply to their careers, and that appealed to me as a person who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
It ended up being a very happy accident that I found myself at a Liberal Arts institution. Suddenly, the pressure to know as much about everything as possible was as external as it had always been internal, and perhaps more importantly, I was surrounded by people who valued the same type of broad knowledge that I had always cultivated. All at once, the esoteric knowledge I had spent my life nurturing was suddenly as valuable as I always thought it was. Stopping to look at bugs on the sidewalk didn’t make me weird — it made me interesting.
I don’t mean to overstate how important my college selection was for me — I honestly don’t know if I would have gotten the same experience at another college — but there is one life-changing event that I know I couldn’t have experienced anywhere else: The Great Midwest Trivia Contest. Here was an entire weekend devoted to the minutiae I valued so much! When the contest was founded, it was designed like a traditional trivia contest; you sunk or swam depending on your trivia knowledge. But, with the advent of the internet, gameplay changed dramatically. Teams play from home, calling in to answer the questions, so there is no way of policing how people find the answer. This prompted the questions to become increasingly harder to find via the internet, effectively shifting the focus of the contest from knowledge to research. The contest didn’t value knowing things as much as it valued learning things. The fact that the questions were about really stupid stuff didn’t matter; the contest is about finding an answer on your own, a skill I had been honing since the third grade. This isn’t to drone on about the virtues of that particular contest (I’ll save that for another post), but to explain that I had, however temporarily, found a home.
When I really think about it, I think one of the reasons that I value the kind of jack-of-all-trades knowledge that the liberal arts instill is that I’m so intimidated by actual expertise. The thought of being an expert at anything is so daunting to me that I’d rather not even try. Having kind of a shallow knowledge of everything is a great excuse for not having a deeper knowledge of any one thing; it’s okay that I forget how many ATP are generated by the citric acid cycle because I kind of remember how to conjugate “sum” in Latin. This allows me to defend and never fully admit my ignorance, which is a stupid attitude for someone who actually loves learning. The problem is that I place such an emphasis on knowledge that ignorance — any ignorance — is embarrassing to admit. This ends up forcing me to pretend to be an expert on (or at least conversant in) just about everything, which is certifiably the behavior of a poseur. What’s worse is that my liberal arts background actually makes me pretty capable of pulling this off. This means I can ask intelligent sounding questions about nuclear cooling systems or economic theory even though I know essentially nothing about them.
I’m insecure about the things that I don’t know, but when I think about it, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a point I could cross where I wouldn’t be insecure about my own ignorance. Sure, a physicist is probably insecure about knowledge nobody knows, and could run circles around me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the expert when a kid asks me why night happens. I think if I start to move towards an understanding that expertise is really a relative term, I can stop being intimidated by it, and perhaps more importantly, stop pretending to have knowledge I lack. That probably doesn’t sound like a huge step to you, but, you know, I’m the poseurphobia expert here.