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Education Is Not About Knowing the Answers. It’s About Learning to Ask Better Questions.

Education Is Not About Knowing the Answers. It’s About Learning to Ask Better Questions.

For a long time, I always felt a lot of pressure to know all the answers. Whenever a question was asked, I was on it.

Life seemed like a quiz show, except the fabulous cash and prizes were the esteem of other people. Being viewed as someone who was smart, which back then to me meant “had all the answers.”

But life had other plans. It wasn’t fair. It could be arbitrarily punishing. Randomly rewarding.

And most disconcertingly of all, nothing about it functioned like what story books and well-meaning adults led me to believe. Life wasn’t a simple series of tests that you studied for, and if you did just what you were asked, you’d be successful. A straightforward set of hoops that you could just jump through.

Instead, it could get messy.

You could be doing exactly what you were supposed to do and still meet with misfortune. I watched good people get bullied. I watched liars get ahead.

And while there was no shortage of people saying, “Follow your heart. Just believe in yourself, and you’ll achieve your dreams,” I noticed that there was a disconnect between how much someone wanted something and whether or not they got it.

Sometimes people who couldn’t care less about a goal would achieve just that. And other times people who had dreamed for years about something would never get where they longed to be.

The more I saw, the less I understood. Nothing was making sense. The answers weren’t coming. All I was finding was more questions. And everyone around me kept acting as though life was much more simple than I could clearly see it was. It was like I was living in a different world, and that difference made me wonder if I were clueless.

Education Is Not About Knowing the Answers. It’s About Learning to Ask Better Questions.

It was at about this time that I first saw Tony Brinkley speak. He was a professor at the University of Maine (now passed away) who bore a striking resemblance to my grandfather when he smiled just the right way. It was an accident of nature, since they had very little else in common. Dr. Brinkley was the head of two departments — English (my major at the time) and Holocaust Studies. Dr. Brinkley was generally soft spoken, although could give eloquent speeches but took his time formulating his sentences. He seemed deep, ponderous, never rushed.

My grandfather conversely was a fiery tempered Quebecois janitor who peppered his frenetic speech with a mix of French and English swear words. A bit like Popeye had gotten stung by bees and was going off. Grampy wasn’t the most learned man either and in hindsight held what were some pretty sexist views (telling me “you’re so smart for a girl,” etc.). But I loved the guy. A lot.

And at my first semester at college, Dr. Brinkley served me up this slice of home through chance emotional transference. My grandfather’s smile on this professor’s face.

And the first time I ever saw him giving a large lecture in a crowded auditorium, he told me one of the most valuable things I’ve ever heard. “Education,” he said, “is not about knowing the answers. It’s about learning to ask better questions.”

I was floored. This was heresy. A complete reversal of what I’d been told my entire life.

But something that immediately felt true.

And suddenly, it didn’t seem like a bad sign at all that life had given me more questions than answers.

The Most Wonderful Three Little Words: “I Don’t Know”

Still, it was scary at first, giving up the need to know everything. For everything to make sense, to be easily explained.

In all honesty, I was terrible at admitting when I didn’t know something, even once I’d consciously decided that I wanted to move away from it, treating life like a quiz show. I’d still catch myself mid-sentence falling into the same old patterns, coming up with a convoluted explanation, brewing up an answer on the spot.

Instead of letting myself sink into those three little words that felt so big, “I don’t know.”

I wasn’t ready for them. I sure wanted to be. But wanting to be ready and being ready aren’t the same thing. And sometimes it takes a long time — much longer than we’d hope for — for lessons to really be put to good use, even after we’ve accepted them.

It was a good 10 years before I actually heard myself saying, “I don’t know, but why don’t we look it up?” or, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” with any sort of regularity.

Or “that’s an excellent question.”

Eventually, I came to interpret the fact that sometimes I don’t know not as some sort of shortcoming within me but as evidence of the strength of the question being asked. And instead of recoiling in shame, I began to lean into the places where I didn’t know, suspecting that they were where I’d find a new education.

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