The other day during a math lecture, I raised my hand, and I asked a question — a stupid one. It was one of those questions that you regretted as soon as the words came out of your mouth. In that moment, I wished for a real-life rewind button or a spell for amnesia that I could quickly cast on the other 70 students in the room. But, alas, in a world without magic, I was fated to suffer the consequences.
Growing up, I was a serial hand-raiser. In elementary school, I would strain my right arm skyward whenever my teacher asked a question, waving my hand frantically to draw their attention. Since those days I have definitely toned my hand-raising habits down a bit, but during middle school and high school, I continued to be a willing contributor to class discussions.
There is a saying in education, often espoused by teachers, that “there are no stupid questions.” Philosophers and pedantic six-year-olds alike might take issue with the dogmatism of this statement. Regardless, it conveys a worthy pedagogical approach — to say that there are no stupid questions is to say that all questions are worth asking.
But the reality of the classroom differs, as many things do, from its ideals. How can we actually create a world where all questions are acceptable? Although it’s not easy, we must embrace our own ignorance, and ask all questions anyway.
I say this as someone who speaks up often. From the outside looking in, it might seem as if I am a product of that all-inclusive educational philosophy, a poster child for “no stupid questions,” someone who has figured out how to ask a question without equivocation. In truth, it is quite the opposite.
After all, the classroom is but another social setting, and I often worry about how I am going to be perceived. When the lecture moves too quickly, I wonder if I am the lone straggler failing to understand the content. Will the question I ask be too obvious? Is it absolutely necessary? In my mind, there are a variety of considerations all at work, all at once. I find myself evaluating my own thoughts, more than I would care to admit, against an imagined, ever-growing rubric of factors, used to determine whether what I have to ask is worth asking.
I wonder why I do this, especially in a world where “stupid questions” supposedly do not exist. Why is it so hard to speak up? Part of the issue may have to do with the way discourse works in a classroom. In my view, it is much harder to ask a question than it is to answer one. When you raise your hand to respond to a prompt in class, you are given the opportunity to display what you know, share your knowledge or at least speculate on a possible solution. But when you ask a question, you are doing the complete opposite. You are acknowledging what you don’t know, and everything you say before the question mark becomes a verbal manifestation of your own ignorance. Asking a question, then, is an act of bravery, and asking a stupid question is an even greater act of bravery.
The issue I have with the phrase “there are no stupid questions” is that it creates a dichotomy — between the stupid and non-stupid — and then ignores the distinction as if it never existed at all. In all honesty, I do think there are stupid questions. “Stupid” might be a crude way of putting it, but I can think of many synonyms that reveal our own internal categorizations. Obvious. Simple. Embarrassing. In reality, people curate their speech all the time both consciously and subconsciously to avoid asking these kinds of questions.
A couple years ago, I started a challenge for myself. The challenge went something like this: when people would use a word that I didn’t know when I was talking to them, I would ask them what it meant point blank. I wouldn’t feign understanding. I wouldn’t even successfully accomplish my task all the time, but I tried my best, and my vocabulary grew as a result of the experiment. I also found that I felt more free as a person, more open about what I did and didn’t know.
Throughout the process, I asked a lot of questions that I still consider to be quite stupid. I asked about words that I would have known if I had paid more attention in English class and words that were common knowledge, just not to me. What I realized is that instead of saying “there are no stupid questions,” we should simply ask more stupid questions. There will always be those questions that we perceive as obvious or embarrassing, and to ignore those feelings would be to ignore reality. We should ask what we want in spite of those hesitations.
This principle applies beyond the classroom as well. During my first weeks at Brown, I learned many names and forgot a fair amount of them as well. When I would run into familiar faces at the Ratty or in class, instead of pretending to know all the names that had escaped my memory, I would simply ask. It was a little bit uncomfortable to bare my ignorance to the world, but it was worth it in the end. The second time around, the name would usually stick.
All of which brings me back to that day in math class. The lecture had come to a pause after my question, and I was getting quizzical looks from some other students. I was a little red in the face. But nothing bad happened. My teacher pointed to the board and quickly resolved my misunderstanding. The lectured moved on.
In short, the imagined consequences of a stupid question are almost never as bad as we fear them to be. That said, the anxiety we feel before asking can have real impacts on whether we choose to speak up at all. These feelings can be augmented by the context and the identities we hold. Speaking up is rarely an easy task. But we should strive to ask more stupid questions. There is a reason why stupidity and bravery are often mistaken for each other.
Johnny Ren ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.