We humans are curious sorts. We love to ask questions. We wonder about things and we seek answers. Children are especially attuned to fining out more about the world and its people. They lap up information with a kind of unmitigated thirst. No topic is out of bounds for them in their innocence. As we grow older we become more circumspect. We are less inclined to be thought of as too inquisitive or lacking in common sense. Experience teaches us that our questions might elicit annoyed or angry responses, maybe even ridicule or laughter. We’ve all heard the chastisement, “That’s a stupid question!”
I taught at virtually every level of the learning ladder. The youngest were always filled with wonder and an unmitigated need to understand every aspect of life. They had so many questions that being with them was sometimes exhausting but always gratifying. I loved their almost divine innocence and their acceptance of each other. They were so joyful in their pursuit of knowledge.
I noticed that the fourth grade is often a kind of turning point at which youngsters become a bit more self conscious. Some of them even feel that they have become the proverbial “fourth grade nothing.” If the teacher doesn’t chide them for their questions the other students sometimes do. It is a time when society begins to beat the openness and guilelessness out of them. They eventually learn the sting of laughter at their comments and realize that their own ways of learning or seeing the world may be very different from those of others. Not wanting to feel strange they begin to be less likely to admit that they do not know or understand something and so their questions become more infrequent lest they become the focus of laughter or ire.
Over time people become more and more circumspect unless they have great confidence. They hide our confusion and sometimes even forget how to ask a meaningful question. They silently hide what they view as their ignorance rather than understanding that those willing to admit to confusion by asking questions are the most courageous among us.
So much of our human potential is thwarted by an unwillingness to ask questions. Our inquisitiveness slowly begins to whither away and instead we simply think of ourselves as being slow or dim witted. We begin to recite defensive mantras like “I’m not good at math.” We settle for less in our lives because we don’t want to annoy others with our incessant questions. We hate to admit to a lack of comprehension that requires a seemingly endless stream of inquiries that try the patience of everyone around us.
I suspect that our journey into the frustration of silence begins the first time that we hear a teacher or parent declaring in exasperation that we ask too many questions or that the ones that we do utter are stupid. When our peers groan at our inquiries we sense that we are somehow inferior and so we begin to open our mouths less and less. Eventually our everyone begins to assume that our silence indicates that we have no confusion. They attempt to assess our mastery with queries that may have little to do with the ideas that are sending our minds into a tailspin. We get by with hiding our concerns so many times that we begin to erroneously believe that not only are many questions truly stupid but so are the people who ask them. In other words we unwittingly encourage ignorance.
If we were to develop one incredibly important trait it would be to have more patience both with others and with ourselves. Learning develops differently in each person and optimizing it requires a willingness to view questions as a key component in the process of mastering skills and knowledge. Each of us can be teachers if we encourage our natural human curiosity to remain vibrant throughout life. We should be overjoyed when anyone seeks to learn no matter how low it may take them to break through the barriers that are preventing them from understanding,
Long ago I read a book by physicist Richard Feynman. He told of his own journey to becoming a premier scientist and how it began with simple lessons from his father who encouraged young Richard to wonder about the world around him. The simple inquiry, “Why?” became the bedrock from which Dr. Feynman explored the physical universe and later inspired countless students by making physics more understandable.
I was recently appalled when I heard someone pronounce that most people are dumb. That is simply not true. In fact I have learned that most people are capable of far more than they ever dreamed as long as they encounter others who are willing to patiently work with them until the holes of their learning are filled. Question are the means of reinforcing the cracks that are holding them back. No inquiry is unnecessary or stupid. We would be wise to teach our children that questions are a glorious way to the fulfillment of our potential. None of them are stupid.