By Noah Bergam (VI)
A gentle chorus of crackling leaves caught my attention on a midday walk. It was a curious, contradictory sound, a fractal hum of tiny collisions. I walked across the curb, took three steps into the edge of the icy forest, and looked for the culprit in the autumn detritus. Nothing. I tried to blink away the quarantine eye strain. Still nothing, yet the hum intensified. When I turned back to the street, I saw the pavement dancing with miniscule ice pellets, white crystals popping in and out of solid existence.
I smiled. The clouds caught me by surprise with their absurdity. I wanted revenge. A childish urge brought me back to the curb, in search of a sizable piece of hail. Drivers passed me by with confused looks as I patiently combed the cold asphalt for something worthy. Searching, searching––jackpot!
I showed it to my mother. It was a beautiful crystal, about a centimeter in diameter, chiseled like a true polyhedron. It was incredible how slow it was melting. Come to think of it, it didn’t really melt at all.
This isn’t ice, she told me. It’s road salt.
It took her about five seconds to notice the discrepancy. Meanwhile, I held the crystal for about five minutes in my glove, with the firm belief that it was ice.
Nature: 2. Noah: 0. In this dramatic turn of events, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I wanted to laugh it off, but I also felt a dire need to understand the mental glitch which led me to this moment. I felt a tinge of that self-correcting hysteria that every Pingry student knows so well: the pain of the stupid mistake. The arithmetic error, the glaring typo, the misread question. In the craft of perfection, from 1600s to 36s to A+s, stupid mistakes must be rooted out ruthlessly. They cannot be treated as inevitable, even as every stupid mistake inevitably stems from the same essential quality: stubborn conviction.
Of course, when it comes to career paths like airplane pilots and police officers, the mindset of perfectionism is not just admirable but societally necessary. However, in the context of academics and pedagogy, when ideas and curiosity are at stake rather than people’s lives, I think it’s important to lighten up on our approach to stupid mistakes. It’s healthier for students to expect to incur stupid mistakes in their educational careers, to value original conviction more than painstaking perfection. Of course, the way most curricula are structured––at Pingry and beyond––this is not a reasonable expectation. Test-taking is a fundamentally perfectionist pursuit, designed to help us strangle our stupid mistakes and fit our thinking to the model laid out in front of us. If we want to encourage students to think for themselves and adopt strong opinions with a healthy mindset, we ought to transition to more research-oriented, discussion-based models. Critical essays in particular ought to extend beyond English class. I’d like to see more math students reading and writing research rather than spitting back formulas––perhaps one of them might come across the Hairy Ball Theorem, which I think offers us a particularly nice illustration of this entire discussion. The theorem states that a sphere covered with hair cannot be entirely combed down; that a planet with wind must have a point on its surface where the air is not moving. So too is any person with an opinion going to have tufts and wrinkles in the fabric of their reasoning. It’s up to them to seek out those logical inconsistencies, to actively smoothen them out while understanding that the topology of ideas is never perfect.
Stubborn conviction is a fundamental part of our humanity and our intellectual legacies as scholars. It’s what gives us the passion to voice political opinions and invest time into civil discourse. It’s what gives us the courage to propose new theorems and theories. It’s what imbues a dreary January hail storm with an air of youthful adventure.