I became politically aware when I learned how to say “I don’t understand.” This didn’t happen until I was 20 years old.
There are some things that are harder for me to understand than others. My confusion peaked in freshman year of college, when my Women’s Studies class moved from “101” material into more abstract, jargon-heavy content. Words seemed to fly through the air without being anchored to anything so mundane as a stable definition. At the same time, I realized that what I had been taught in high school about writing thesis statements no longer applied to college: I was going to have to relearn the definition of a thesis. This would have been fine, except for the fact that I didn’t understand any of the definitions that people were giving me.
I was filled with shame about this. What kind of college student didn’t know what a thesis was? How had an introductory Women’s Studies class got so beyond me? Did I really deserve to be at college? So if I had to ask for clarification, I often pretended to “get it” after a cursory explanation, when really I was still confused.
My problem with admitting confusion was that I had internalized the idea that my worth as a student was based on my ability to understand things within the same timeframe that others did. I did not feel entitled to ask for clarification when I was confused, because this would be admitting to having failed in my duty to understand. I wanted to tell the truth about what I was thinking, so that I could learn more thoroughly. But I was afraid of being thought of as unfit to be at college, because I had internalized the idea that good students didn’t get as confused as I do.
This semester, we read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in my Education class. The author, Paulo Freire, talks about the process through which an oppressed person learns about their oppression, a process he calls “conscientization.” I underwent this process in my freshman year, and it happened because I was so very confused. After I started hitting cognitive dead ends in my classes, I got online and started reading. I learned about privilege, ableism, disability rights. I became conscious of my oppression as a disabled person. And I began to see that the ideas about what a student should be – the ideas that had caused me so much shame – were not inherent in the universe. They were a product of prejudice.
Becoming politically aware meant that I no longer felt so terrible about not fitting into society’s idea of what a student should be. I started to think that perhaps society should widen its idea of a student enough to include me. I started to think that I deserved to understand the material, even if my process was slower than that of some of my classmates. Learning about disability rights has empowered me to be in control of my education, to ask questions without shame, to sometimes try to change my environment instead of always trying to change myself. And I have learned to utter the words “I don’t understand,” without apology and in a loud, clear voice.
Zoe Gross is a contributor to the Navigating College handbook and blogs at Illusion of Competence.