The year was 1993, we were in the 3rd year of Engineering and I remember that incident as if it happened yesterday. I must have replayed that scene hundreds of times over the last 20+ years and am reminded of it, when I see it happening over and over again. It happens when I work with fellow colleagues, speak with friends, work with students, work with kids and everyone else.
But let’s get back to the incident first. It was just another day in Engineering class and the our Engineering Maths professor was teaching us one of the topics that was going well over our heads. This was the 5th semester of our Engineering course and I was beginning to feel very edgy even then about what the fuck Engineering was about? The professors seemed least interested in teaching, the topics were beyond their understanding to explain it in useful terms to us and most students, to be very frank just wanted a degree in their hands and no knowledge. I really wanted to learn and understand most subjects but was continuously hitting the wall in terms of my basic questions for any subject:
- Why are we studying this subject?
- How does it work ? What are its real life applications?
- What really works and what does not ?
You know the kind of basic questions that one must ask to understand the subject matter and get some basics drilled into your head for good. But that was simply not happening and I guess in one moment of madness, I had enough of it. In hindsight, I could have handled the situation differently but that’s in the past. I simply halted the class and professor and asked him point blank “What’s the use of all this?”
The professor was caught unawares but it did touch some raw nerve in him also. Like I said, my intent was good but the way I put it was probably crazy and not the correct way. He stared madly at me and told me to come towards him. I gingerly went ahead and thought he would actually slap me. Instead he said “You fool ! You don’t know anything ! All that I am teaching you is being used everywhere!”
That was the end of it. As simple as that. I went back to my seat, the class went on and I understood that the professor, the education system , the class room environment and the madness to get degrees had all failed us then. If the professor knew his chops, he would have met me and explained to all of us, the practical uses of all the stuff that he is teaching us. But he didn’t. With due respect, he may even know where it all applies, but no attempt was made to make our class interesting, steer away from the normal and groom us differently. More than anything else, the teacher should be doing all that he/she can to make us fall in love with the beauty of knowledge. But Alas that did not happen and I continue to see that manifesting in more ways over the last 20 years.
In my experience, it boils down to most of us not wanting to ask questions. There is a fear in us to ask questions. More than that, there is a fear to let someone else know that “Hey! I don’t know this. Could you explain it to me?”. Why do we shy away from that? Ask many questions. Keep asking them. The answers will come eventually and from most unexpected sources at times but we will have to ask them.
All the students that I interact with, I make it a point in the beginning to tell them to feel free to ask questions, not to let me off the hook if there is something that they did not understand, did not appreciate or maybe thought I was bluffing. I find that most students are very receptive if you as a teacher are also open that I may not know everything and if there is a good question asked, I will do my research later and get back to you with the answer. Isn’t that the essence of a healthy working relationship? To me that is the best way to build confidence in each other.
The problem manifests in many other way:
- Several occasions where my kids complain that they asked some questions and teacher instead reprimanded them. When I hear about the questions, some of them are funny (yes! .. kids ask those questions) but some are actually great and could make the class interesting. But the easy route taken by teachers, “Hey! Stop disturbing the class. We have the whole syllabus to complete here!”. Sad !
- In work situations, being afraid to admit that a particular domain or area is unknown and ask questions, often results in shoddy work and rework that blows the estimates away.
- I respect hierarchy but I never accept that as a blind truth that everything that comes from top should be accepted as is. Everyone is human, we must look at things from all angles, make sure it makes sense to us and if something looks wrong with it, question it. Not all management is evil and always believe that there will be a healthy exchange of points and mature leadership will encourage it, rather than silencing it. Of course, don’t just question out of habit. Do your homework.
Bottom line. Never stop asking questions. Never stop looking for knowledge. Never discount who will provide you the answers. There will be disappointment along the way, its natural but it should not be due to lack of effort from your side.
In the end, knowledge are destinations, life is the ocean and you are the ship. Navigate it one port at a time. Disembark once in a while, take in the sights and sounds and sail ahead.