Are There Stupid Questions?

Old time child wearing dunce cap and sitting in bucket

Well, are there?  If there are, what defines a question as stupid?  Does the very question posed in the title of this post somehow answer itself?

In my first a month-and-a-half at CSUF, this question has come up over and over again.  Whether it’s from another student rolling their eyes at one of our classmates’ questions or while helping a friend out with their homework, the idea of “stupid question” has been banging around in my head a lot.  It stems from the classic line you probably first heard from a sweet old elementary teacher, “There are no stupid questions,” which of course has since spawned a number of variations, but after mulling over the semantics and potential of the phrase, I’ve come up with my own take.  Depending on who you ask, you may get the original version or a more sarcastic rendition, and I’m going to talk a bit about those before I share my own conclusion.

At its essence, the base response of, “There are no stupid questions,” is meant as an encouragement.  When seeing that little Billy is too sheepish to ask a question in class, a kind-hearted teacher may echo this idea to all of her students, in the hope that good ol’ Billy will feel comfortable enough to get his question answered.  At a very young age, young children pass through their first stage of self-awareness, which will almost always lead to their first inkling of embarrassment and hesitation.  A little baby doesn’t have any clue that others are watching… he’s just trying to survive and figure out the world.  This is why you’ll see babies making hilarious faces or shoving things in their mouth – they’re unaware that your watching eyes could be construed as judgmental.  After a number of months, though, you may approach this same baby and smile, but the child will hide their face or stop what they’re doing.  As with Adam and Eve, this child is suddenly aware of themselves and how they are perceived by others: good/bad, normal/strange, appropriate/inappropriate. Obviously, this mentality only grows as we mature, but that’s where it begins.  That’s where folks’ fear of judgment from others starts, and it only gets more complicated from there.  So, when an adult passes this quote on to a child, they are hoping to whittle down some of this fear – to let the child freely express themselves.  Of course, then there are the other versions of this line.

The more popular variation is, “There are no stupid question, just stupid people.”  Heck, perhaps that’s the original quote and the nicer version is the variation, but I’m not concerned with the genesis of the saying.  I’m interested in what this line means and whether or not it’s true.  To take a more mean-spirited, sarcastic tone with this line infers a viewpoint that there are plenty of questions that shouldn’t be asked.  The problem with this approach, though, is the same basic premise I’ve written about when discussing semantics before – who decides what is?  A teacher of philosophy may be more interested in hearing questions that an English teacher may otherwise find to be a waste of time.  Does this mean that asking a philosophical question in an English class makes it a stupid one?  Would walking into the room next door, where a philosophical debate is underway, suddenly change the question into a poignant one?  There’s also the question of prior knowledge, and at what point does a question become stupid?  Consider my friend, James, who works on cars for a living.  If another mechanic approached him and asked what a piston does, James would probably think that was a stupid question.  If a four-year-old approached him with the same question, however, I don’t imagine he’d feel the same way.  Again, though, to make a blanket statement about “stupid people” with a quote like above doesn’t clarify whose point of view should be used to determine the cut-off level of experience… or, other words, intelligence.

Let’s take a brief look at the words used in this quote, as well.  Mainly, let’s think about the word ‘stupid’ and what it means.  As an adjective, in this case describing the word ‘question,’ it is commonly understood to mean: lacking intelligence or common sense, the inability to comprehend, or careless.  Taking these definitions in reverse, a “stupid mistake” is a careless one – something I wouldn’t normally do, but did anyway because I was tired or didn’t pay attention.  Secondly, a “stupid person” might not just misunderstand something, but be mentally be unable to comprehend it.  Of course, this references what I asked above, and the first definition in this list, because it again begs the question of who defines at what level a person should be considered stupid?  A 50-year-old who can’t grasp the concept of basic addition might be considered stupid, but one would only say such a thing because this elementary math is “common knowledge.”  If the 50-year-old can’t understand what most learn before they’re 7, he’s considered stupid.  When dealing with extreme cases, this type of name-calling is more understandable (though still unkind), but the issue always comes with, instead, dealing with the less obvious.

If you’ve spent a decent amount of time reading my blog, or if you know me, you know that I prefer to avoid blanket statements.  It’s not that I don’t believe there are truthful generalizations, but my apprehension lies in the fact that relying on these generalizations in conversation tends to negate the individual.  You may think that it’s a racist stereotype to say that black people love fried chicken, and it is (though, who cares.. fried chicken is delicious), but worse than that.. it’s a generalization that cuts out the black people who DON’T love fried chicken.  Even more importantly, I ask what value it has other than to compartmentalize people into easy categories?  Saying that there are no stupid questions implies that no question can ever be stupid, but we’ve seen that my friend James might disagree when dealing with his fellow mechanic.  Saying that there are no stupid questions, only stupid people brings up the issue of figuring out just whose definition of intelligence we’re following.  So, how do I approach it?  As I see a gal in my class roll her eyes at the “stupidity” of another classmate, or when going over homework problems with a friend who just doesn’t get the material and is tearing herself down for it, I now respond in this way:

If genuinely asked, the only stupid question is the one that isn’t thought through first.

I’m a natural teacher, in that I love seeing someone’s face when the idea they’ve been struggling with finally clicks in their head.  It doesn’t matter if they’re studying astrophysics or their ABC’s, it’s such a kick to help someone learn, and I don’t think any less of them for the struggle.  Being a lovely person has nothing to do with how “smart” you are, anyway, and that’s infinitely more important in my book :).  Having said that, however, if a person should be able to find the answer on their own, or they need to ask a question simply because they weren’t paying attention, then I’m comfortable with considering their question a stupid one.  This thought came to me, in its final form, when witnessing a classmate try to answer a question.  She wasn’t thinking about the problem, she was just throwing out possible solutions, words we’d been talking about, just trying to get a nod of approval.  She just wanted to get the answer and move on – “knowledge” at its most surface level – without seeking an understanding of the material.  I’ve seen it in class discussions, as well, where the students ask so many questions that if they would simply let the professor speak, and would LISTEN to what he has to say, their number of questions would dwindle.  Yes, there are those who are less intelligent than others around them, but I don’t think a lack of smarts defines a person’s questions as stupid.  Instead, similar to the difference between ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant,’ what makes a question stupid is a lack of forethought – or a lack of care for actually understanding something.

We all make stupid mistakes sometimes, it’s only human, but we can definitely avoid asking stupid questions if we first take the time to consider the subject at hand and then genuinely seek to learn… because yes, there are stupid questions :).

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About Mark Mushakian

Just a man who loves God, women, kids, dogs, movies, and every other lovely thing in life :)
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One Response to Are There Stupid Questions?

  1. sdbmania says:

    I tend to agree. If you honestly don’t know something or don’t understand something, then you should ask your question. Sometimes a person may feel foolish or embarrassed, but I don’t think it is bad to show your ignorance. I’d say a question is stupid if it disrupts the learning process, but honest questions are not stupid.

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