‘There’s No Such Thing As A Stupid Question’, And Nine Other Dumb Things I Learned In School

I was a student for 18.5 consecutive years. There was an extra one early on, between kindergarten and first grade. I was told it’s because I was special. The half year at the end was because I wanted a masters degree. Also, I didn’t sufficiently fear debt. As I said, special.

Over the past five-and-a-half years, fully out of the academic fog, I’ve managed to unlearn some patently false clichés that are articles of faith among too many teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors. And by" too many," I mean "not zero."

These platitudes range from misleading to outright harmful, and they all — at least all the ones from elementary school — have their roots in the self-esteem movement, a racket that tells you to be proud of yourself because, well, you’re you!

I’d like to wage a war on these clichés, and save our children from the plague of stupid. Help me out. If I missed any other gems, let me know.

1. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

This is the stupid answer to the stupid question of, “Are there stupid questions?”

There are many. In fact, the pool of all possible questions includes far more stupid ones than smart ones.

Maybe I should give teachers who say this a break. After all, there are some children whose inclination may be to think before they speak, to go over a question in their head before they take the class’s time with it. To first try to answer it themselves, because, after all, who wants to be known as the kid who asked in what year did Nicolas Cage write the Declaration of Independence?

I guess we should be teaching those children that they’ll get farther in life by blurting out whatever question pops into their undeveloped brains. And while they’re at it, they should share with the world more than just their questions. If there are no stupid questions, after all, there are also no dumb thoughts or opinions.

2. “You can be anything you set your mind to.”

You just can’t. Most people have the potential to do only a few things well, at most. That potential is talent. You’re born with it.

Many people, but probably not most, can actually do one or two things really well. That’s skill, and it’s talent plus experience. It’s when ability meets time and repetition.

Developing nothing into a skill takes naiveté. It doesn’t happen. I learned that the hard way in college when I spent well over a hundred hours (real-life hours, not credit hours) pursuing a geology major, and bashing my head against igneous rocks in frustration, before my mineralogy professor told me a very mean thing: maybe it’s not for you.

I was actually sort of taken aback. That’s how deep the “You can be anything you set your mind to” rubbish was lodged in my head. I later realized that the guy did me a big favor. He saved me time and energy by telling me nicely to get out.

That’s the world I want to live in. One where adults don’t lie to kids and tell them they can be great at things they’re not even average at.

3. “I don’t care who started it.”

Tell that to Poland in 1939.

Who started it is often the only thing.

Who started it? The bully who turns the peaceful status quo into war. The brat who hits a kid at the playground and then cries to teacher when that kid hits back.

By all means, children who are bullied: hit back. Don’t run to teacher. Don’t try to appease. Hit back. Twice as hard. It’s the only language bullies understand.

“I don’t care who started it” are the words of unwitting accomplices. It’s a childish, amoral phrase that bullies love to hear come out of the mouths of adults.

4. “Do your best.”

But what if your best isn’t very good? What if your best could be better? What if what you think of as “your best” is no more than a paper ceiling that would crumple if you tried to do better than “your best”?

On its face, “Do your best” can sound motivational: Always give it your all. Don’t leave anything out there on the field.

But it also sounds like a hand-wrapped excuse for not achieving a goal: If you give it everything you have, then it’s not your fault when things don’t turn out right.

If your kid’s room looks like a bombed-out toy factory even after he “cleaned” it, he may say he did his best, but that is impossible. Or — maybe that is his best, but it would get better if he tried to make his room look clean instead of trying to do his “best” to make his room look clean.

If a student shows up late to second period for the hundredth time, she may say she’s doing her best, but that is impossible. Maybe it’s hard for her to prioritize timeliness over whatever is keeping her late, but that’s a choice. Maybe being on time requires her doing better than her best.

Growth, by definition, is what happens when you do better than your best.

5. “Be yourself.”

Well, unless you repeatedly find yourself in detention or time out. Because in those cases, “yourself” is obviously not what you should be, as evidenced by your being in detention or time-out, possibly by taking to heart what some adult told you about being “yourself.”

This is sometimes good advice when the intended audience is an adult, but to a child’s ears, “Be yourself” can have an awfully similar impact as “Do your best.”

“Be yourself” says to a child that they are great just the way they are, and they should feel good about themselves even if they routinely act in an unsatisfactory way.

In addition, “Be yourself” and “Do your best” diminish in children’s lives the role of role models — people who children aspire to imitate because they are better than they. People who inspire in children the idea that they can be a better version of themselves, which is different than “Be yourself.”

“Be yourself” can be sound advice when it comes to some adult social situations, like dating for marriage.

Assuming you’re a well-adjusted and decent human being without too many strange idiosyncrasies, you really do want a spouse who loves you for you, and who, at most, wants you to improve (who wouldn’t?), not to transform.

But save for the small percentage of children who are mature beyond their years, “Be yourself” is stupid speak for “remain a child.”

6. “There are no wrong answers.”

This is unambiguously preposterous.

It’s even more obviously false than “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

It’s measurable and objective, which means “There are no wrong answers” isn’t even a little true. There are definitely at least some wrong answers.

Just to give one example, “What is two plus two?” provides an infinite array of wrong answers. Or, “Who’s more easily offended than the gender nonconforming Queer Musicology major who runs your local university’s club chapter of Feminists For Environmental Justice?” So many wrong answers.

In some contexts, “There are no wrong answers" may be appropriate. Like, “What’s your favorite breakfast food?” Or “Which Amy Schumer Netflix special will you not be watching this weekend?” Sometimes, there really are no wrong answers.

But usually — as in, any situation in which there actually are wrong answers — “There is no wrong answers” is a bad thing to tell children who need to understand that there is a definite reality that exists outside of themselves. A reality that does not change based on the answer they give. A reality with right and wrong answers.

7. “It’s who you are on the inside that counts.”

It’s really not.

What counts — if “counts” is a synonym for “is important” — are actions and words. What counts is what’s on the outside, how you treat others, whether you behave with honor and integrity.

What’s on the inside isn’t irrelevant. Inner peace, happiness, and intentions are all important things. But they don’t “count” the way your impact on other people does. If we’re talking about the moral bank account, heaven and hell, and the whole eternal judgment thing, your actions are what go on the scoreboard.

You may be familiar with the idea that we shouldn’t judge people, only actions. Or how about this: you and what you do are two different things. I don’t think they are. I think you are what you do.

Adults should be in the business of helping children become grown-ups. But “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” is a childish idea. Much of successful adulting requires impulse control. It requires understanding that what you want to do is less important than what you should do or need to do. It means acting in accordance with what is good, not with that makes you feel good.

Children and immature adults have trouble with this concept. Because, after all, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

8. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I want to say horrible, horrible things about the professional sensitivity trainer who came up with this doozy. It’s dumb wrapped in stupid multiplied by moronic.

Taken literally, it means, “The only things you say should be nice things.” That’s impossible, as it would mean even politely neutral requests like, “Would you please pass the salad?” would not be nice enough to utter aloud.

Taken as the purveyor likely intended, it’s wildly impractical. There are many things that need saying that not only don’t sound nice, but sound harsh or even mean.

Things like, “Jonny, maybe you’d have more friends if you stopped picking your nose at the lunch table.”

Or, “If you heat up fish in the office microwave one more time, we’re going to have to let you go.”

And finally, “Maybe you wouldn’t be single if you stopped taking your dates to Taco Bell and offering to split the bill.”

9. “It’s who you know.”

This career advice entered my field of hearing in high school or college. It struck me then as obviously true — professional advancement definitely is impacted by the people who you know and, more importantly, who know you. But it’s also simplistic, imprecise, and inaccurately categorical.

It is not just who you know. You need to have ability and competence. And you need to be reliable. Otherwise the people who you know won’t do much for you.

It’s also not the “knowing” that matters. It’s the actual relationships. The pursuit of “knowing” people, of building the Rolodex, produces business card swapping, a useless activity unless you follow up, make phone calls, get coffee, talk regularly; you know, develop relationships.

It’s not about who you know. It’s about who knows you, and likes you.

10. “That’s a first-world problem.”

This was a not uncommon phrase on my college campus. Because after all, nearly every college-related problem is definitionally a first-world problem.

Sometimes, “That’s a first-world problem” is meant in jest, in which case I’m all for it if it gets a laugh.

But other times, “That’s a first-world problem” is another way of saying, “Stop complaining, there are starving kids in Africa.”

My objection is that if those starving kids moved to the United States and became Americans, pretty soon they’d also have first-world problems. After some time, those first-world problems may even bug them as much as they bug me.

“First-world problems” are the problems that humans face when the problems endemic to impoverished countries are absent. In other words, “first-world problems” are just problems.

If the tire on my car blows out, is that not a problem because, hey, I should be grateful to even have a car? I am grateful to have a car, but the flat tire is still a problem. And because I also have food and a roof over my head, the flat tire may be the biggest problem I face until I need to change the filter on my water cooler in a few weeks.

Westerners should be grateful that many of our problems are “first-world problems,” but deriding those problems feels, on some level, like an expression of contempt for the society that produces “first-world problems.”

That contempt should be reserved for the people who whine that Starbucks put too little soy milk in the tall, half-caff, soy latte at 120 degrees. That’s not a first-world problem. It’s just not a problem. And the barista didn’t make a mistake. She just doesn’t like you.


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