“If you know more when you graduate from college than you did when you started, you have wasted your money.” When I tell this to first-years advisees, I sometimes catch them trying not to roll their eyes. But roll your eyes all you want, I stand by what I have said, because I speak from experience: not only my own undergraduate years, but my experience since then as well. So far I have published twelve books, with two more in the works, on various subjects, including a couple of major German and Austrian writers, history and theory of European drama, history of poetry, highbrow literacy and aesthetics in their relation to totalitarian politics, ethics as a problem, feminism. And whenever I finish a book—in the moment when I think, “It’s done, anything more will just be tidying up,” in the moment when by rights I should be savoring my achievement—I invariably find that I have only succeeded in bringing more clearly into focus the same basic ignorance that had driven me to write in the first place.
Knowing is fun. There is no denying the pleasure that comes from knowing—or thinking you know. But it is probably more important, for life, to get practice in dealing with the condition of not knowing, the condition of uncertainty, of being at sea, and to learn, if possible, to make something of that condition. I have always thought that such practice or learning is at least a major part of the business of university education, and I have experimented with a number of different ways of incorporating this idea in my teaching. I look forward to the experiment of Engagement teaching in this spirit.