Comfortable With a Kind of “Stupidity”

Comfortable With a Kind of “Stupidity”

At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else. I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way.

That is from a short piece, several years old, by Martin A. Schwartz, a microbiologist at UVA, though it is easy to imagine the same kind of conversation between a philosophy professor and former philosophy student. One interpretation of that passage is that Schwartz is saying that the student wasn’t tough enough to survive the acculturation process through which good academics get used to being “stupid” (“ignorant”?) in the way he describes. That may be what he is saying, but he does not blame the student. He thinks it is a failure of graduate education:

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about ‘relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’.

There is something to this. Professors set a bad example when they don’t own up to their own intellectual struggles, lack of confidence, and ignorance. And it seems like graduate programs could do more to help students to deal productively with feelings of “stupidity” (and to not let it contribute to impostor syndrome). Yet Schwartz only notes in passing, towards the end, that people are differently situated in their capacity to do this. Admitting to peers, professors, and advisers that you feel stupid is an expenditure of intellectual and social capital, and how comfortable you are doing that may depend on how much of such capital you have in the bank—and that, in turn, might depend on all sorts of arbitrary and unfair features of our lives and world. So there may be more to addressing the problem than Schwartz accounts for here. Nonetheless, it may be worth considering how departments can help students make better use of feeling “stupid.”

(Thanks to Kareem Khalifa for bringing this article to my attention.)

(art: Gary Larson, The Far Side)

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