Pardon me, Ms Schiller, I’ve been wondering…

Nov 17, 2010 by

Pardon me, Ms Schiller, I’ve been wondering…

“Persistent questioning and healthy inquisitiveness are the first requisite for acquiring learning of any kind.”

– Gandhi

Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is my purpose for being? How will I become who I truly am to be? When will I die? Questions each one of us has asked about our existence, often repeatedly throughout our lives, but do we really expect to discover these answers? Or are we merely acknowledging our inherent curiosity, and hoping that our lives will eventually lead us down a path to an enlightened state of awareness? From the time we can first formulate just aksthoughts we engage in the questioning process. Most would agree we do this even before language is a part of our world; we wonder and want to know about everything! We ponder, we hypothesize, we think! From there we can do a number of things: we can look to appropriate resources to satisfy our query (such as books, the Internet, periodicals and the like), we can ask someone who has proven expertise in that area, or we can even utilize a method such as the scientific one, to conduct our own experiments to try and find out what we want to know. Surely this just makes good sense and should be an accepted practice in nearly every circumstance and setting, right? Well, apparently not, and the reasons may not be so simple after all.

French philosopher, mathematician, physicist and writer, Rene´ Descartes, is to have said “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think; therefore I am,” but soon after the thought comes the question, and as with the chicken and the egg, here too, it may well be appropriate to ponder which of these came first, (and we may never know). So I ask you, if it is natural for the human mind to question, and if doing so is the very beginning of our cognitive process, why is it so often unacceptable to ask when we want to know?

Now you may at first think I am incorrect in this, and that there is no logical basis for my statement. But allow me to suggest that you consider the many times in our lives we have questions, yet somehow, we dare not ask. In school, for instance, as young children in the very setting that should be most conducive to formulating and posing questions, we are often intimidated by either the teacher, or our student peers, and we learn early not to allow our vulnerability and expose our ignorance. The atmosphere in a typical classroom often suppresses our natural inclination to express and explore our thoughts with one another, and to ask questions about almost anything is often considered more an exposure of what we do not know than an articulation of what we want to know. The difference here being an emphasis on perceived stupidity of the one asking the question, rather than deserved respect for keen awareness of missing information necessary to what we would know. When this happens, children learn it is not acceptable to show what they do not understand by asking, since it will so often be used against them in the form of ridiculing laughter, name-calling, gesturing, and the like, not to mention labeling and ostracizing and even bullying. We have somehow allowed the classroom, of all places, to become non-conducive to creative questioning and learning, and this is a very sad and even dangerous circumstance, indeed.

One might wonder if this is true, how prevalent it is in different educational settings or in different cultures? Clearly, this is not true in every case; there are some wonderful things happening in classrooms everywhere, but I suggest that it is probably far more common than we would ever expect. Would it be less of a real problem in a gender specific classroom environment, or in a more private or affluent setting as opposed to an inner city public, or impoverished one, or even a culturally diverse one? What could be the reason this may have come to be the norm, and does this irrational and counter productive beginning of our children’s education migrate into other segments of our community life, such as our businesses and governments? One possibility for the how and why of it could be our competitive nature trying to overcome and manipulate our natural proclivity to question, (as in “might verses right?) In any case, it appears clear that in more competitive societies, we are moving away from honoring our sense of wonder, curiosity, and individuality and toward an ever growing appreciation for power to manipulate, alienate, and control. I might even suggest that a greater presence of the arts in the classroom, interspersed throughout the curriculum might go a long way toward disabling this effect.

silent manIn a broader sense, outside the classroom, personalities, and whether or not one is extroverted or introverted certainly may have bearing on this phenomenon of being comfortable, or not, asking questions, because it is simply easier for some people to ask questions than it is for others. Still, there are clearly more factors at play here than personality or temperament alone. We have long observed in our daily lives, people’s reticence to ask when they want or even need to know something. Some of this behavior may even be gender related, as in our assumption that men would rather die than ask for directions (something many women, and even some men, would swear they know to be true.) Women are often expected not to ask questions at sporting events, for instance, where they may not feel well versed in the rules of the game. There are many more examples with regard to gender, as well. Even in our personal relationships there are questions some of us dare not ask because the mere questioning of certain things is tantamount to “guilt” or “innocence.” Is this because we often anticipate the judging of others before we even open our mouths to speak?

I am a teacher. In my classroom questions are always welcome and encouraged. I can think of no finer way to engage with each other in an academic pursuit than to feel free and comfortable to question. When we allow and consider each other’s questions, I believe we affirm the other’s worth. It may be the highest regard little manwe can give to one another, and it is certainly all about respect. We must find a way to change how questioning is perceived if we are to work together to solve problems in our schools, in our communities, in our political interactions, and certainly as citizens of a global community with plenty of things to question and resolve. If we do not honor each other’s right to question beginning in our own homes with our family and friends, how can we even hope to live together in peace and harmony on this good Earth? Simply observing how we personally react as individuals when someone asks a question may be a good beginning toward making the changes so desperately needed to turn things around. So if you agree with me, I extend to you an invitation to join me in reconsidering how respectfully we listen to the questions of others, at home, at the next meeting, at work, or at school, maybe just a little more tolerance and an open mind and heart will be all that is necessary to make a difference?

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke (from “Letters To A Young Poet

Photo Credits:

Ask: Dave @ flickr

Don’t Ask: Baking In Pearls @ flickr

Silent Man: Bernardo Borghetti @ flickr

Little Man: Photos by Zoe @ flickr



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  1. Eve forcinel

    So powerful Adele. Should be a must read for all teachers including parents. Brilliant ! Good reminder for this grandma also. love you.

  2. Naomi

    When I was teaching, I would let my students know that there is no such thing as a “stupid” question, and the only question that is “stupid,” is the question not asked. Of course I discussed the use of the word, “stupid,” as it is used today. I let them know that it’s a word I don’t use. I put it in that context so that they would get my point, and they did!