A few years ago, I wrote this blog entry about how I did better in courses where the right answers were clearly defined (like math and spelling) than subjects in which students could answer various ways, depending on how they interpreted the subject material (like social studies and English literature). I mentioned that I developed the need to have as many "right answers" as possible, which is why I did well in spelling bees and trivia games.
Recently, however, it dawned on me: Being smart isn't about knowing all the right answers beforehand. Being smart means asking questions when you need answers. It means knowing which question to ask to get that answer, and in some cases, finding out who to ask. Long ago, I used to think that if someone asked a question in class that they must not be smart because it meant they were having trouble grasping whatever subject the teacher was teaching.
Back in high school, I was too proud to ask my English teacher to give me a literal interpretation of certain phrases in Shakespeare--I could have sworn that some of them read like Yoda the Jedi Master had written them--because I thought the teacher was already expecting me to interpret Shakespearean correctly. Meanwhile, my mind was getting lost in words that felt like they weren't being used properly because I kept thinking of how they are used to today (e.g. it didn't occur to me that "soft" actually meant "stop" or "be quiet"; I sure could have used a reference like this back then). I never understood what the characters were really saying until recently, some 20 years later, when I saw the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant as Hamlet and the recently-knighted Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius (he also played the ghost of Claudius' brother, Old Hamlet). I strongly recommend you see it--you may have to buy the DVD as it aired on PBS a little over a month ago--but I digress here.
Point it, I could have asked other students in the class after school as to what certain words meant or how certain parts should be read. An example is Act I, Scene II: I failed to figure out that Claudius' lines at the start of the scene were intended as a speech to the other characters on the stage, not just to one or two (and certainly not a soliloquy); and furthermore, that speech is divided into separate parts (first about his marrying Gertrude, then about Norway's continuing war with Denmark under the leadership of young Fortinbras). When I first read Hamlet, that speech seemed like nothing more than one long, rambling stream of words.
Obviously, it's better to ask a stupid question now than make a stupid mistake later.
And sometimes failing to ask questions can be the stupidest mistake of all.