Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 2/28/2005 3:27 AM
Random Thought: Leave Them Asking, II

A colleague reminded me that Einstein once said that if he only had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend all but five minutes making sure he had the right question. The right question! The tough question! He went on to argue that it is not enough to teach students merely to ask questions. We have to help them learn to ask the right and hard questions. With that I have no disagreement. The question my colleague next raised, and rightly so, is whether it is also required that students have the ability not only to ask but to answer as well, and then be courageous enough to act on those answers. In my mind, maybe. It’s the ideal, but not necessarily always the essential. To support his position, he cites Teddy Roosevelt that when a decision is to be made, “the best thing we can do is make the right decision. The next best thing we can do is make the wrong decision. The worst thing we can do is to make no decision.” Here, too, I can’t disagree. But, I think a “maybe” is in order, for I don’t think the questioner, answerer, and actor need be the same person. However, I would argue that the asking of the tough question, especially the public airing of an unpopular question, makes the person no less a target for tomatoes than the person who answers and acts on the answer. Posing the tough question, then, is no less a decision, a hard decision, a courageous and decisive action, than is coming up with answers and acting on them.

And, I know when I go on campuses and offer workshops on teaching , I tell the participants emphatically that I come with questions for them to ponder. Asking questions is a push for change. All you have to do is to ask the right, hard question, ask before you have an answer, see a situation differently, see a problem from a new angle, and suddenly everybody's perceptions and vantage points changes. It causes everyone to reframe the issue.

I was not taught to ask questions in my undergraduate classes. I was taught to answer the professor’s questions. I learned to ask my own questions, to become a quester, at the family dinner table by my father. “Ask your ‘whys’,” he always would tell us. “It’s more important than just copying down the teachers’ ‘whats.’” Or, he’d tell us, “Don’t wait for other people to hand you a problem to solve, learn to see the problem on your own.” It’s like what David Brook wrote in a recent editorial in the New York Times about Iraq and the entire Arab world. Whenever the hard question is asked, you shake people up as much as an earthquake that registers 9 on the Richter scale. Ask that hard question and people squirm. Pose the tough question and people seem to feel that the rules have changed. New possibilities open up. It’s a new day. There's a new world out there. A new reality is considered. Business as usual is no longer acceptable. Smug complacency is less comfortable. Silence and acceptance is less acceptable. The hard question poses a threat to all the glass objects in its proximity. That’s why it's not particularly amazing to think of why there is often much resistance to listening to any tough, break through question. The tough questions are unsettling, often setting off a string of moans and grumbles and shouts and screams. Some people feel anxious, some frightened, some attacked, some depressed, some confused, some alarmed, some ugly and cruel, and some just flip out because of the annoying questions. Those burr-under-the-saddle questions ask us to dream as we hadn’t dreamed before, to hope as we dared not to hope, to do as we’ve not done before, to get unstuck in our traditions, to relinquish our vested interests, to tear down our confining and protective walls, to open the door and come out from their emotional bunkers, to reconsider the proclaimed right of our positions, to consider alternatives, and imagine a world beyond. To be sure, things don't go smoothly, or come out wonderfully, or even work just because someone asked the hard question. But, this I know: Nothing changes without someone provoking with the tough, hard question. This is true of academia, sometimes especially in academia, no less than it is of world outside the Ivory Tower.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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