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The prequel to "Stop doing stupid!" and "Stop doing stupid too: The Sequel!"

I have lived now for over six decades, and during a majority of that time I have had the honor and privilege to serve in a variety of capacities as teacher, professor and, at times, as a technical and business mentor. Sprinkled throughout all of those years have been the constant, and actually quite the normal, series of questions associated with student-teacher interactions. This is the normal learning process that I doubt will change soon, even with all of the social media and interactive technology capabilities we are currently developing. It should be noted that, while these new Internet capabilities are possibly more aligned with Socratic learning philosophies, when compared to that of the current large lecture-style classroom, it will take some time to validate these efforts and their potential for enhanced learning. Either way, in most of these learning environments there always seems to be the interference from the inevitable, and often dreaded, question that has no bearing on the subject at hand, serving at best as a distraction and worse as a divergence; in other words the stupid question

I will admit that some, maybe a majority, of the myriad of questions that I get in the classroom are related to my unorthodox means in conveying the needed information and its importance. The rest, though, can be chalked up to the inherent failure of the student to fully grasp the new, foreign concept or to connect the appropriate neurons to synergize their next great ah-ha moment. There might, of course, also arise the incidence of the desire or need by some participants to derail the learning process. Such motives may spawn from apathy or a concern that the learning differential might be accelerated for the more ambitious participants

While for me most of these learning peculiarities apply to the classroom-based, student-teacher relationship, it can apply equally well to all interactions where someone is learning something from someone else. If there are failures within any of these interactions they can, for the most part, be attributed to inherent differences associated with age, and possibly the age differential between the parties, as well as the number of participants in the exchange, among the other reasons mentioned above.


As I started to indicate earlier, it is within these questions and the exchange of information, plus the value of such in the handling of life’s problems, where the true power of the learning process occurs. I should also add that this is where the true value is experienced through feelings of accomplishment resonating in both parties, sometimes more so for the instructor. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that the questions are of little or no value to the subject at hand and, as such, they become a waste of effort and by any reasonable social measure, a waste of valuable resources like time and money.

One of the primary reasons we as a species have been so successful (in addition to our opposing thumbs) is our ability to learn and to take advantage of that knowledge to create a stronger social order. This also allows us to aggressively protect ourselves from the varied and changing environment we choose to live in amidst the others that we choose to live around. It is in the success of that information and knowledge transfer, along with the ability to accelerate that process, which has made us so remarkably successful, even if it has put our environment in peril at times.

In other words, it is in our ability to successfully teach what is needed to the next group of learners that helps to precipitate the next great something that is needed to stay ahead of the problems we have created by solving yesterday’s problems. This seems to be the nature of the beast for any advancing social order, where the notion of simply stepping off of the merry-go-round in favor of a simpler time is a train that has long since left the station.

I suspect and hope that we are growing in capabilities faster than the problems we are creating. Where, hopefully sometime in the not-so-distant future, we will learn to not only work together celebrating all of our diverse differences, but we will also be able to protect the same diversity and beauty that is our home, Earth.


While I want to believe we are getting to that visionary time, at least for our children’s sake, the question should be are we getting there as quickly as we could. Are we teaching the correct content and are we expecting our students, in whatever forum, to learn at the best possible rate? Also, what can we individually do to speed this process along? Clearly, I have only a glimmer of the answers to these questions, but I can suggest something from my experience as an educator that might be helpful.

The educational process in whatever form it may take globally, and in its current form and state of competency in the U.S., was developed to prepare the next generation of young people for life’s daily tasks and for those future accomplishments as mandated by the resident social order. The same priorities can be applied in any learning process for any age group or organization within that society. It might be important to note that most progressive and successful organizations and companies stress life-long learning as a requirement for continued growth and success of the participants and the associations within the society that they contribute to.

Unfortunately, what I have found laced throughout all of these possible scenarios and particularly within the ranks of our youth, along with the families that nurture them, is a willingness to cater to and coddle a growing percentage of the participants, including the teachers, who should be serving as role models. The measure for success should be the maximum number of students adequately trained and educated for the current and future needs of society. Instead, we seem to have settled for, and want to favor, the total time spent and the variety of subjects covered independent of the content assimilated in a useful form. Part of the problem – I suspect a very large part – is the unwillingness of the participants to not only expect, but to demand an appropriate level of competency as valued against the resources expended. Success is its own best indicator and our current measure is, at best, mediocrity.

The perceptions that no child can be left behind and that everyone deserves to win a participation award, to name just two, need to come to an abrupt end. We no longer have and never did have the reserves nor the luxury to allow less than excellence to flourish. Being just good enough does not challenge anyone and will not lead to the next great game-changer that we desperately need to propel our society forward, nor will it create the next great something to excite our youth into wanting to do additional great things.


We are not all equal in specific traits and capabilities, but there is something that everyone can contribute to that always levels the playing field. We need to find those individual capabilities and help them excel. Lowering the bar so everyone can simply step over has allowed the rest of the world the opportunity to advance their social order and their technical capabilities, placing the U.S. in a less than superior position.

So, there really are stupid questions. Such inquiries may be asked simply to stall the learning process for the rest of the participants, or because the person really wasn’t listening or too lazy to learn the material. For whatever reason, we all need to stop the growing laxness in our social system that continues to lower the achievement bar. We are genetically pre-programed to learn and to seek greatness in favor of our species' survival. This programming is what forces us to continue to learn, advance, and challenge the wisdom of the past. Allowing the stupid notion of ‘good enough’ to interfere with that natural process is a formula for disaster.

As far as the stupid questions go, I intend to continue to teach past them. If I step on someone’s feelings in the process, then they need to learn to reach a little higher on the achievement scale... plus, they need to stop taking things so seriously. I suggest we all need to stop aiming for mediocrity and start demanding excellence. Currently all of us are ‘just good enough’ if that is the current height of the expectations. History shows that a good enough level has never really been good enough, and it won’t work in the future if we are going to flourish. There is excellence in all of us. It will just take a little more focused energy and determination to get there. Though they probably won’t agree with us now, our children will thank us in the future if we choose to set excellence as the only appropriate goal.

 James Smith is professor and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at West Virginia University.