Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 2/19/2005 3:18 PM
Random Thought: Leave Them Asking

A friend of mine came over to the house the other day to stay with me as I recovered from my operation. He’s a businessman, a very successful businessman. We got into a discussion about the University and education in general. That was good since it helped me to start getting my juices flowing as I get ready for my return to the classroom on Monday after a nearly four week absence.

In the course of our exchange he said something to the effect of, “I was having an argument with a friend of mine about the University. I took the position that the major purpose of the University to prepare students for the workplace. I’m sure you’ll agree with that assessment.”

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” I answered. “I don’t buy that. If I did, the University would be merely a white-collar vo-tech school.”

“Then,” he asked with a tone that combined surprise, slight annoyance, and lots of curiosity, “what are you supposed to be doing over there if not to give them credentials to get a job?”

“I’d get my soapbox if Susan would allow me to get on it,” I comically answered.

“No, I’m serious.”

“Okay. I’m supposed to be scratching my head and helping students learn how to do the same thing.”

“What are you talking about? We’re not talking about lice. Be serious!”

“I am. Asking questions and teaching students how to ask questions and to get the nerve to ask questions,” I replied with a smile, “that’s my job! That’s why the University is here!! If I had to write a two sentence mission statement for the University, one sentence would be ‘our mission is provoke fresh thinking about and new approaches to everything by helping students to freely and fearlessly ask questions.” The going words are ‘freely’ and ‘fearlessly.’”

“That’s all?”

I told him something like this, but please don’t hold me to each word. “That’s all? That enough! That’s everything! It’s curiosity, wonder, experimentation, imagination, creativity, innovation, invention, growth, development, change, achievement, success, progress. Where do you think all the scientific advancements, industrial developments, technological achievements, and hordes of innovation and invention that you rely on in your business came from? They didn’t appear in some form of spontaneous creation. They came from people who had the audacity to ask first simple little challenging questions like ‘I wonder. What if.’ What do you think is the foundation of great art? It’s the questions the artists were asking. All social, political, economic theories, philosophies, theologies, policies and programs are rooted in questions. Ask questions, and the horizons are always broadening. Ask questions and your mind is always open and your heart is always receptive. Ask questions, especially of yourself and you’ll never get presumptuous, arrogant, self-righteous, and stagnant. Ask questions and you’ll never get stale or stuck in a paralyzing rut. Instead you’ll always be fresh and alert, and you’ll bring a freshness into everything you’re doing. Ask questions and you’ll always be independent and think for yourself. You’ll never be a mindless drone or a zombie-like follower. Ask questions, and you’ll value truth over mythology, ethic and morality over bias and prejudice, reflection over presumption, investigation over assumption, reason over ‘that’s the way it always been done’ sentiment. Ask questions and you’ll develop the imagination, innovation, and creativity. Stop asking questions and you’ve stopped learning; stop learning and you’re stopped in your tracks. And do you know which the most important questions are?”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t get on a soapbox,” he smirked. “But, ‘no’ to your question. I can’t wait for you to tell me.”

“The annoying ones. The pain-in-the-ass ones. The hard ones. The unpopular, provoking, uncomfortable, inconvenient, controversial, politically incorrect, and challenging ones. The ones that don’t blindly accept accepted answers. The ones that get under peoples’ skin are really all about: asking those burr-under-the-saddle, fly-in-the-ointment questions.” The ones that cause tomatoes to be thrown. That’s what ‘academic freedom’ and tenure are supposed to be all about: letting us do our job while protecting us from having to take hemlock.”

“Never thought about it that way,” he said to his credit.

“Please do. What do you think all the blue and red division around us is about? It’s about open-minded people, on both sides of the isle, asking questions and close-minded people, on both sides of the isle, not liking or not wanting the questions asked. I once had a parent assault me way back in the early seventies after her son had told her about a discussion we had had in class by saying ‘I don’t care if you get my son to ask questions, but there are only certain answers I want him to have.’ If I can get students to question my answers rather than merely answer my questions the way I want; if I can get them to learn to ask their own questions and challenge me; if I can get them to take a chance of fearlessly using their own hearts, minds and souls freely; if I can get them to have the courage to openly inquire; if I can stir their inquisitiveness, imagination, and creativity, I’ve done my job. I’ve left them asking

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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