KOEPP: Learning humility in and out of the classroom

Charles Koepp

I can still remember my first visit to Vanderbilt after being accepted quite vividly. As part of a weekend-long open house for prospective students, I, along with my dad, made the nine-hour haul from Milwaukee to Nashville with the aim of more fully investigating the place I would call home for the next four years. Specifically, I remember this day as a bizarre cocktail of emotions: excitement, anxiety, curiosity, fear and amazement (if only I had known then what move-in day would be like). Bits of the day stand out: sitting in the car as we circled campus looking for a place to park, my stomach fluttering with nerves; sharing in my tour guide’s love of the school, her enthusiasm contagious; looking around at the other accepted students, sizing them up while simultaneously worrying about them sizing me up.

But I remember one moment indelibly. It was during the open panel with current Vandy students when the question was asked: If you could change one thing about Vanderbilt, what would it be? The answer: “Let’s be honest. Everyone here was a big fish in their high school. Now you’re all in a pond of big fish, and adjusting can be very difficult.”

At the time, I wrote this answer off as innocuous and self-congratulatory, a cue for us all to simply turn to one another and smile with self-satisfaction: “We made it.” On the contrary, this observation has rung true time and time again during my time at Vanderbilt, and it came to a head just last week.

The incident in question concerned an in-class warmup quiz: graded only for participation and meant to occupy maybe the first 10 minutes of class. When going over the answers, a small but vocal minority of students protested the given solution to a question deemed too unclear. What started as clarificatory questions quickly escalated to claims of unfairness, then a classwide argument with requisite interrupting and yelling, and finally a warning issued by a dissenting student to one who had tried to clarify the problem at hand: “You’d better not come over to this side of the class.”

Really? Physical threats? Afterwards, I heard that same student cussing out both the professor and classmate. All this, I remind you, over a 10 minute warmup quiz. I don’t exaggerate in saying that the furor over this one question took up the entire 50 minutes of class.

The point here is not to complain about this incident per se, but to understand the context in which some students, many only taking the class for a non-major requirement, can with a straight face challenge the instruction of a professor with years of study and a PhD in the subject, for whom the problem at hand is so elementary as to not even necessitate a second thought. I understand that an important part of critical thinking is questioning the received wisdom of ivory tower academia, and that a PhD alone does not bestow one with absolute knowledge of any given subject. But that doesn’t hold so well when dealing with basic problems with objective answers, where challenging the solution is akin to challenging quantum theory on the grounds that two plus two does not equal four. Clearly, there’s something going on here other than a desire to simply challenge the establishment.

The answer, I think, is simple, harkening back to that memorable moment I experienced as an incoming first-year. Vanderbilt is a school of historically big fish who have presumably spent the first 18 years of their lives cultivating roles with all the answers. We’ve founded clubs, tutored our peers, led group projects and captained sports teams. At the first sign of pushback in college, we experience a sort of cognitive dissonance: How can I be wrong after all these years? It’s a fact of academic life at Vandy that I see subtly pervade conversations and classrooms every day, whether it be two arguing friends both insisting with mathematical certitude their correctness on a particular topic; my coworker who dismissed his professor’s feedback on a paper on the grounds that he was a professor of political science, not English, and therefore not qualified to give writing advice; or classmates whispering ad hominem attacks about a professor who only gave them — God forbid — a B on a paper (“and even after the rewrite!”).

All this is to say, with overdue bluntness: It’s okay to be wrong. In fact, that’s kind of the point of college, and indeed learning in general. College is a place to have convictions challenged, assumptions debunked, and — in the case of my argumentative classmate — wrong answers corrected on a daily basis. Learning by its very definition implies an admission that there are, in fact, things you do not know.

If you can admit that to yourself, you will feel all the more liberated. You might not feel like as big a fish, but I assure you you’ll be much better off for it.


Charlie Koepp is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at charles.m.koepp@vanderbilt.edu.