Let’s entertain a hypothesis: “The more you know, the smaller your world.”
On the surface, this seems like a counter-intuitive claim. We all know that “knowledge is power,” that schooling and higher education are the surest creators of opportunity, and that education is the work of a lifetime—whether by way of institutional training, library books, the daily reading of the newspaper, or simple, consistent, curious engagement with the world. To this end, the more you know, the bigger, the greater your world should be, right?
I’m not so sure. Remember how big the world was, how tremendous the unknown, before you knew it? Poet Kay Ryan has a terrific description of this manner of expectation, the hope we nurse as we consider that which we don’t yet know: “what isn’t in / the envelope / just before / it isn’t.” What “isn’t” just before it “isn’t” is what actually is—the object of desire, aspiration, hopes, and dreams. Or, it could be the object of greatest fear, for there are at least two ways to think about it. If what “is” is a college acceptance, coveted invitation, or letter from your love, then you are bound to be crushed by the knowledge that it “isn’t” there. But if you are awaiting medical results with grave potential, then the fact that what could have been “isn’t” would be a welcome, joyful, liberating instance of non-knowledge.
In either case, Ryan is pointing us to the “what” specifically before we know what is to be known. That “what” is possibility. The moment before you know what it is you set out to know, every door and window is open. The next step could lead anywhere. Once you’ve taken it, though, you know it only ever went so far. And I’m not talking about the inevitable anticlimax that follows the fulfillment of a long-awaited goal. I’m talking about what V.S. Naipaul describes as the state of mind of a middle-aged man reflecting on a period in his youth and knowing, with hindsight, that he had been “at the most hopeful time of his life.”
If this meditation sounds glum, let me offer a disclaimer. The obvious alibi for my hypothesis is that I am trying to come to grips with the limitations of hyper-specialized knowledge. Or, put differently, the “what it all means” of a doctoral education. One of the maxims that gets tossed around in graduate school is that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. But my experience of this phenomenon—of accepting the limitations of what you know in the face of all that remains to be read and studied—is that it is often accompanied by a curious flipside. There is much to know, and little time in which to know it. The bigger the universe; the smaller the man. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, and the increasingly atomized the world becomes.
II. Our Ways in the World
I’ve been reading a series of coming-of-age novels for a course in world literature, Bildungsromans, as such novels are called. Literary scholar Franco Moretti argues that there are two ways a protagonist of a Bildungsroman will have made his way in the world by the close of the novel. Either, he will have transformed his world, the conditions of his existence, the community in which he lives, and so on, or he will have had to assimilate himself into the world as it is, perhaps compromising personal politics or ethics and abandoning dearly held dreams in the process.
Though this is clearly an oversimplification of Moretti’s argument, I want to emphasize that the protagonist of a coming-of-age novel must choose between two forks in the road of a life. Transform the world, or seek to be accommodated within it? Set out for greener pastures, or make your home where you are?
That’s why the Bildungsroman is so useful for thinking about our journey through the world. The character who chooses between two possible life paths is dramatizing in the singular a choice that we all make in the plural.
Countless times a day we have to choose between paths, between change and constancy, between the new and the familiar. Knowledge is won. Decisions are made. But the destination of a life path is not evident until the end of the novel, as it were. A lifetime of “making change” may shed its revolutionary skin in the final pages of a life. And a lifetime of seeming compromise may, in the end, reveal the transformation of our world.
III. After Immigration
I wasn’t born in the 1970s, and I was too young in the 1980s, but I can imagine the electric feeling of possibility that accompanied the tide of immigrants from India to the universities and industries of the United States. Men and women, my parents, some of you, readers, came to this country in pursuit of knowledge. In pursuit of opportunity, yes, but also and inextricably of knowledge. The dream was to know more of the world, to partake of the best education on offer, to belong to a system where success would beget success and where the more you knew and accomplished, the bigger the world of opportunities for you and your family would be.
Thirty, forty years later, we know what there is to be known about the old New World. We know what is on offer, the possibilities and limitations of this place. Every coming-of-age novel of the Indian-American diaspora has now been written. And if those MetroPCS commercials are any evidence, I think we chose the assimilative path.
Wistfully, many of you who came here then look there now—back at India—not with the well-chronicled nostalgia of the early diaspora days, but with recognition and the cold, clear resignation of ones who know.
This is the small world. Elsewhere’s where the story begins.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.