How to Have Questions

In college, my girlfriend and I had a common issue. This issue seems like at first it would be something that would indicate someone who maybe shouldn’t be continuing higher education, and that’s what both my girlfriend and I thought for a long time; certainly while we were in college.

In class, I would sit patiently and listen to the teacher lecture or present or participate in whatever he or she had planned for that day. By participate, I mean that I did what was asked only so far as it allowed me to still fly under the radar of the majority of those around me. When the teacher would ask the class questions, I raised my hand about half the time, hoping to never be called on. This hope was mostly born out of an intense self-consciousness coupled with an emotional sensitivity that frequently garnered provocation from those around me.

Much of the time, though, the reason for not raising my hand was that I simply had no answer, no opinion on whatever the topic was other than it was mildly interesting. Even the topics that did greatly interest me, such as a Medieval Life and Literature class I had wherein we learned about some very interesting Irish literature such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, still inspired in me no great insights. So, when the teacher would pose a question, as this particular professor often would, I might raise my hand, only to have little actual input.

The fact that I wrote so many papers while in college still amazes me. The feeling of being completely lost in the shuffling of papers and schedule still lingers with me.

I never put much thought into the fact that, though I might be somewhat interested in a topic of class, I had virtually no real opinion of the thing with which to generate a response. Because, that seems to be a large part of what my classmates were doing. The teacher would introduce something, then give a probing question, then, someone would raise a hand and proceed to give a poorly-informed opinion on the topic.

I was unable to do this. And when I did try to, I was met with eyes that seemed so uninterested that I might just dissolve right into my seat. So busy was I, though, with trying to study, read and write for pleasure as well as have some sort of social life, that, again, I didn’t put much thought into why it was happening and how I could do better.

Thinking about it now, some things make a lot of sense. One of those things I’ve mentioned a few times already: interest. The ability to speak on a subject, one must have some level of interest in it, whether that’s an inherent interest in the thing itself or from some external source (writing an essay as an assignment, let’s say). Some level of interest is necessary, however. If no interest exists, then nothing of any value can occur.

This seems fairly simple, except that, how do you become interested in something? That’s the hard part.

Interest has never been much of an issue for me, though. There are few things that I’m absolutely not interested in, and even those, under the right circumstances, I could very much be interested.

In college, I had, as a general education requirement, to take some sort of civic/ history class. I decided to take a slightly upper level US history class. Mostly because of history. Simply jumping into the religious history of Europe in the 1700s and its effects on the economy of the United States in the 1800s isn’t immediately interesting to me. So I opted to take this other class. While I can’t remember the title of the class it was basically US History from 1980-early 2000s. It was also a politically-oriented class. Kind of strange for a creative writing major.

It worked, though. Kind of.

I ended up getting a low B if memory serves. That was the first time I experienced the phenomena that interest drives education. After a quick Google search, I found this article, which talks about this in more detail.

That should be step one in my mind: interest.

If that’s step one, then what’s step two. The answer comes fairly easily upon consideration. I’ve already mentioned it in this post.

Having an opinion is very different from simply having interest in a topic. Plenty of people have opinions on things they have little interest in. There are those I know who think that having a strong opinion about everything is of the most important goals for anyone.

I don’t agree, though I do see the importance of having opinions and the practice of having opinions. Here’s an interesting take on the importance of having an opinion. The trick is, again, how to develop an opinion of something. Even more, how do you help your children or children you work with develop opinions. Real opinions, not simply those based on a hunch or a feeling. Also, opinions that aren’t precious, opinions that are fluid and open to change, but still strong enough to stand up to those that seem strong but are only loud.

For me, the easiest way to develop an opinion about any topic is to go through a kind of checklist of mental activities. First, I take in whatever my first impressions are about the topic. Sometimes this first impression is very clearly defined like that of racism or abuse. Sometimes that first impression will be much less clearly defined like that of political partisanship. You might have a strong opinion on that, but, as of right now, I definitely do not.

After this first impression, I ask myself how much I actually know about the topic. Once I realize how little I know, I decide on whether to research the topic. After researching facts and other established opinions, I go back to step one. This is a process that I think is very helpful in developing an opinion while allowing for a certain freedom of thought.

While my parents did the best they could, and I feel very lucky to have been raised by them, they did little to instill this type of thinking in me. I don’t blame them, though. They, as with many people, were always caught up in trying to maintain a healthy, comfortable life for my brother and me. This meant, at times, a decided lack of instruction on their part in the way that I’m describing.

I am unsure if this post will be helpful for anyone. I do know this is information that would have been invaluable to me as a student. It’s changed how I learn and think for the better, so I hope it’ll come in handy for someone.

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