Be curious. Be smart. Be wrong.
It’s been a week now since the election, and many people I know are still struggling (me too). I will not write about what concrete political actions we can take now because other people more qualified than I have already done it, and will continue to do so. (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. CliffsNotes version: Use your $$ and your voice to support the organizations that will fight for all of our human rights.)
Instead, I want to talk about our current intellectual culture - where being wrong and making mistakes is considered a failure - and how this contributes to the fear of asking questions. This culture is something I encounter every day in the classroom, with my colleagues and peers, as well as with my superiors, and I think it’s dangerous. Never has it been more apparent to me than in this recent political campaign. I hope that by accepting more of the scientific method in our daily lives we can push back against this culture and begin to influence the next generation of thinkers to be more critical and involved so they never face an election like this again.
Being wrong can be a failure, if you give up there. But if you are resilient and open-minded, then being wrong is simply a necessary step along the path to being right. The scientific method teaches us that there is no absolute proof. For hundreds of years, we’ve learned about the world by disproving hypotheses. Any hypothesis that stands up to years of attempts to disprove it eventually becomes an accepted theory, and persists until new evidence arises that can disprove it. Everything we know, we know because people got it wrong until they got it right. The only way to fail on this path is to refuse to consider new information.
Unfortunately, we are becoming less tolerant of openly revising our ideas, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way we talk about political candidates. We need to accept that like all humans, politicians sometimes make the best choices given available evidence, and then change their minds when new information comes to light. This is not “flip-flopping” or inconsistency. This is the type of flexible thinking we need, in both elected leaders and a thoughtful public. Being wrong, then revising our ideas appropriately, is how we can get things right. A candidate who blindly holds on to their ideas in the face of new information is not strong. That is a person who lacks the humility and mental agility to adapt in our changing world, and is therefore too dangerous to be in charge.
When you are too afraid to be wrong, to be seen changing your mind publicly, what is the outcome? You become afraid to try things, afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked. As an educator, nothing infuriates me more than when people don’t ask questions, because of course this isn’t because they already know all the answers. We all don’t know something. So ask about it. Asking a question demonstrates that you are curious and engaged. Asking the right question broadcasts your intelligence louder than anything else you could possibly do.
What did I see this election season? I saw people failing to ask the important questions. When Trump said he would bring jobs back, many people failed to ask: How do you plan to do that? Which jobs? At what cost? Instead, people just trusted him. Being critical and asking questions is not in opposition to being trusting. Trust is important, but it means nothing if it is used as a substitute for actual information. In the absence of information, you have no idea what you are trusting in. This willful ignorance is dangerous, but it can be easily fixed! By asking questions. By demonstrating what you care about. A lack of questions conveys a lack of caring, and you have to care to be a participant in democracy. So ask questions, listen to the answers, revise your thoughts continuously. This is the way to be smart.
So where does this leave us? We need to reframe our idea of what it means to be wrong and what intelligent discourse looks like. We have to model it for our students and peers and children. Let’s be better and more transparent about times we were wrong and how we were able to move on. Let’s practice asking questions that we don’t know the answer to and really listen to the answers. As humans (educators/parents/friends), let’s let our fellow humans (students/kids/friends) hear us say, “I don’t know,” and then publicly make a plan to become informed. Let’s tell our fellow humans when they are wrong, and use it as a spring-board towards expanding all of our curiosity and knowledge with kindness. We can do this together.
Above photo by Lauren Shipp