“What do I really think when a student asks a dumb question?”
Let’s get something out of the way first. The cliché, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question”–taken in a literal way–was coined by someone with an overly active imagination or an overly charitable character. Consider the following example from one of my Ethics classes. The topic was reproductive cloning. We were speaking of the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, where the DNA-containing nucleus of an ovum or egg cell is replaced with the DNA of a somatic or body cell of the animal that is desired to be cloned. After cell division is “jump-started,” the developing embryo–in this case, the “clone”–is transferred into the uterus of a surrogate mother. Now, some scientists, keen on bringing back extinct species, want to bring back the Wooly Mammoth using recently discovered Mammoth DNA. Provided the DNA is sufficiently intact, this can be done with reproductive cloning. (The movie Jurassic Park is not based entirely on fantasy.) One proviso, of course, is that both the egg cell provider and the surrogate mother would have to be from a living species, presumably an African Elephant. A student immediately raised his hand. “Yes?” I asked. The student replied, “What about the tusks?” After a moment’s hesitation, other students started laughing. I may have as well. (For my students: if you were present in my class that day, what was my reaction?) Let’s call it the Tusk Question.
To be fair, there are contexts in which the Tusk Question would not be a dumb question. For instance, there was a period of time–a long period of time–when we knew little about reproduction and fetal development. (“Back in the day” many scientists used to think that human sperm were tiny humans. It’s called preformationism, if you care.) Or when a student isn’t realistically expected to know that tusks grow after birth, or that African elephants have tusks. But this was a college student, and a relatively intelligent one at that.
It’s easy to get frustrated by dumb questions. One of my favorite professors at the University of Washington, Robert Coburn, who normally was the most imperturbable guy in the world, would on occasion get perturbed when faced with a dumb question. Sometimes he would reply as follows: “Just think about it for two seconds; I’m sure you’ll figure out the answer.” Just so you know, that is verbatim. Other teachers simply gloss over or even ignore outright the dumb question, especially when there are questions from other students.
I was seriously tempted to use Coburn’s approach in answer to the Tusk Question. Instead I used a gentler variation, by asking the student some simple questions: “When do tusks appear?” and the like. It only took a minute or less for the student to figure out that his original question was pretty dumb. And then he laughed at himself. That’s the approach I typically take. Often, though, I will ask the student to repeat the question or to restate it. Perhaps I’ve misheard or misinterpreted the question.
Some say that there’s no such thing as a dumb question; there are only dumb people. That in some context, any question can be perceptive and on point. For, as pointed out above, in some contexts, even the Tusk Question makes sense. There is some truth to the claim that it’s people who are stupid, not questions themselves. Let me tell you a true story. Once Elie Wiesel visited my local high school and gave a lecture in the auditorium. Student attendance was mandatory. He spoke eloquently and powerfully of his experiences as a prisoner in several concentration camps during World War II, including Auschwitz, and also of the Holocaust in general. When he finished, Wiesel called for questions from the largely student audience. One student near the front on the right hand side stood up and asked, “What is a Jew?” Wiesel became angry and proceeded to berate the student for what seemed like five minutes. He clearly presumed that the student was simply being an asshole. But I knew that student, and to this day, remember his name. He was a gentle soul. I knew, and many of my fellow students knew, that the question was sincere. He truly had no clue what a Jew was. Wiesel presumed that the student was intelligent. This was a faulty presumption and it naturally led him to berate the poor student. I want to make another point as well. Asking what it means to be a Jew is not a bad question. My grandmother was Jewish by blood, but was Eastern Orthodox by religion. Others are followers of Judaism but have no Jewish blood in their veins. “What is a Jew?” is a good question, though surely the student could have and should have introduced the question differently, since it’s also a sensitive question. He, however, simply wasn’t very intelligent.
I think we need to recognize that there are dumb questions as well as dumb people. But this doesn’t mean that as teachers our default approach is to treat students and their questions this way. What should the default approach be? I employ the Principle of Charity in class. If a student says something that can be interpreted in more than one way, interpret it in the way that presumes higher intelligence on the part of the student. I discuss this principle in class as something that we, as teachers and students, should employ when we engage with others. At the same time, charity only goes so far. Sometimes you’ve got to “call a spade a spade.”