Assume Nothing (Muhlenberg Magazine, Spring '14)
Letting go of assumptions is liberating.

Thu, 29 May 2014 10:22:00 EDT

“Wisdom comes with winters,” said Oscar Wilde, and I wish he had been right. After the number of winters I’ve had – and the meteorological horrors of the most recent winter – I would be a genius by now.

But sadly, I’m not.  Knowledge I’ve accumulated, to be sure.  Lots of it.  My long-term memory is stuffed to near capacity with information that, if my brain were an attic, I would dispose of at a yard sale. It no longer matters, for example, that the language school now standing at the corner of Stilz and Frankfort Avenue was once occupied by Oralea’s Bakery, nor that their sugar cookies were the best to ever come from an oven.  Ditto for the best places to buy Matchbox cars and trucks in Louisville, Kentucky circa 1961, or the exact place and time I first heard the Beatles sing “Can’t Buy Me Love.” All this information is harmless, I suppose, but not exactly useful.

I’ve found, however, that other so-called knowledge I accumulated in an earlier “simpler” time, is best disposed of quickly. The world has changed – in many ways for the better – and the sooner I ditch many of the assumptions I grew up with the happier I seem to be.

The symbolism of wardrobe choices was the first to get thrown overboard. After all, I came of age during the ’60s. I didn’t much care to be stereotyped on the length of my hair or the cut of my bellbottoms. Why should I assume anything about today’s students  if they dress like Goths, have pierced noses or tattoos or wear hoodies. I’ve found that asking students’ about what’s written on their t-shirts has provided me with a free education about the latest music groups, catchphrases and humor. And I’ve gotten to know some really great young men and women I might have missed if I’d been judging them on their outward appearance.

I try not to draw conclusions from dialects either – not since a professor in grad school once told me he thought  because I talked slowly (my Kentucky accent was more noticeable then) that I must think slowly too.  I’m still somewhat judgmental about grammar and word usage, but then after all, as a friend of mine once said, “nobody’s human.”

I’ve long since discovered that I shouldn’t assume shared cultural knowledge with my students.  Twenty years ago I was shocked to learn that most undergraduates had never seen “The Godfather.”  This semester I was equally shocked to learn that none of the students  in my Homeric Epic class have seen the movie “Troy.” I am still trying to figure out their fascination with vampires and zombies.  I’m sure there is some deep metacultural  significance to this obsession, but I’ll be darned if I know exactly what it is.

Let’s also consider the concept of family. Thirty years ago, when I started my career in fundraising, reading the daily gift logs was relatively simple.  If a couple made a donation it was usually Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or maybe Dr. and Mrs. Smith.  Nowadays, I make no such assumptions.  Couples today might be listed as Mr. and Dr. Smith, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, Ms. Smith-Jones and Ms. Jones-Smith, and many other combinations. While this new state of affairs may complicate life for the data entry clerks who maintain the development staff’s address lists, I find it very liberating not to assume anything anymore about people’s personal lives. I can start our acquaintance with a blank slate, and let them fill it in for me– or not – as they choose.  Of course I don’t claim to be utterly free of prejudice and pre- conceptions about people – none of us is – but the more assumptions I abandon, the more rich and interesting life becomes.

It doesn’t really surprise me that I have come to appreciate this “assume nothing” approach – and not just because it saves me from embarrassing gaffes. I’ve never liked being stereotyped myself. I’ve never wanted to be typical, predictable or clichéd, and it pushes my buttons  when people assume they know what I will think, say, or do because of my gender, race, clothing or title. An ultra-conservative friend, now dead and gone, used habitually to assume that I was an ultra-liberal just because I was an academic.  Some of our more politically correct faculty and students assume I embody the status quo and the forces of repression simply because I am President of the College.  Annoying? Absolutely. But I guess it goes with the job.

At the end of next year I will be moving on to a new phase of life – a phase I choose to think of as a refreshingly blank slate.  I’m not assuming anything – except that it will be full of surprises.

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College