This article initially appeared in Current.
I was on a train heading from Alexandria to Cairo. Next to me sat my friend Grace, a fellow student in the American master’s program we were just finishing. She was a Kenyan who had a radiant smile and a prominent accent that sent her English dancing and curling in on itself like ocean waves. I loved talking with Grace. Today, though, our conversation was heavy.
A few months before, Islamic extremists had bombed multiple Coptic churches across Egypt on one of the most widely attended Sundays in the church year. The Feast of Palms had exploded, who knows, perhaps even as “Hosannas” rang. Now there were national guards with stony faces and machine guns posted outside church grounds across the country, patting down worshippers before they stepped in to pray as if they were entering a prison.
Grace and I were talking about hatred, how mysteriously it buds and blossoms in the heart like some dark, enchanted flower, native to the netherworlds of human history. As the train rumbled on through the desert, I began mulling aloud to Grace over the way hatred spreads: how at times it seems to propagate accidentally, its seeds dispersing with the wind; how at other times its growth is systematic—it’s planted, sown in a people, a nation, a tribe, as if the intent is to harvest a whole field of hate at the end of the year.
But this last bit didn’t land. Grace and I had reached a language barrier, a conversational brick wall the likes of which we had hit many times before. I struggled against it in vain for several minutes, lobbing up verbs and ever-weaker adjectives in the hope that one would make its way to the other side. At last I found a proper noun I was confident would cross the gap.
“Grace, it’s like the Holocaust.”
It’s true, I had mumbled. “The Holocaust,” I said again, enunciating this time, and I pressed on, leaning forward in my seat, relieved to be past the barrier and eager to press on in the conversation. “Hitler sowed hatred in Germany by holding up this false vision for what the nation, for what human beings ought to look like, and that hate grew and grew until it massacred the Jewish people.”
Grace was looking at me with her eyebrows stitched together and her head turned to the side. “Who is Hitler?”
I looked her in the face for one long moment then sat back in my seat and stared at the headrest in front of me. I felt turned around, as if suddenly I needed directions to navigate my own mind.
When the shock faded, a vague discomfort took its place, as placeless and persistent as static cling. The feeling I could most easily identify was embarrassment. I was embarrassed by my presumption, and even more by the shock that followed it. I had worked with international students from the Global South for years at this point. I had studied the colonial spread of Christianity as part of my degree. I knew, as well as any American, that history was full of Holocausts I’d never heard of.
Why the shock, then? Why the feeling, irrepressible and panicky, of being lost in my own brain? Why the discomfort that lasted, not only through the train ride, but through the following weeks in Egypt and even through the two flights and the long layover home?
I was experiencing a profound dissonance within myself. I had been privileged with an education that had given me a working knowledge of global history. I’d had the honor of enjoying close relationships with people from all over the non-western world, with Kenyans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Burmese, Ugandans, Singaporeans, Inuit, Egyptians. My education and my friendships had taught me my ignorance of the world: I knew there was much I did not know.
And yet, it was with unmitigated confidence that I offered the Holocaust as an illustration that both Grace and I could grab hold of. It was with honest and lasting shock that I realized I had been mistaken.
This strange pairing—my confidence and my shock—made me see myself anew that summer. I recognized with fresh clarity what I had glimpsed only halfway and hazily before. I could see a profound difference between myself and Grace, between my formation and Grace’s formation, between the education of the West and the education of the South.
Grace has biases and limitations the same as I do, understanding that’s funneled through the cone of culture and language and personal experience. But here’s the difference: She does not make the mistake of assuming she has anything more.
My education, on the other hand, from kindergarten through my second degree, has been explicitly aimed at mastery. Master this concept, master that formula, master this chapter, master that language—as if, when I finish with A’s, I will have attained total control over the content. I will have wrestled it into submission; the whole of it will hang limp in my hand.
Of course, this is not the case. True education is anything but mastery. True education is an exercise in humility, and I do mean an exercise: ongoing, trying, strengthening; making one fit to move humbly in the world, to exist within one’s own smallness in time and space, and to live well in it.
I had underestimated the effects of an education aimed at mastery. I had bought into the fallacy. I had assumed my control over the contents of history. I had forgotten my own ignorance and the ignorance of my friend, the ignorance that Americans and Kenyans share in common—that of knowing only in part.
I got lost in my own mind that day because a landmark I thought to be universal, the Holocaust, was revealed to be, in some strange and disturbing way, parochial. Its evil reached to the ends of the earth, but the knowledge of it did not. Kenyans have other disasters to mourn, other histories to write and to study. They have Hitlers of their own, whose names I do not know, my own ancestors inevitably among them.
Grace was my teacher that day, as she had been before and would be again. Years out of school now, I find myself needing to cling to the lesson even more fiercely. In a culture of experts and masters, Twitter and YouTube, politicking and finger-pointing, it seems rather out of place—but in such a climate its acknowledgement is only more essential: I see in part; I understand in part. May such knowledge be the beginning of wisdom.