On Feb. 5, the Senate acquitted President Donald Trump. By the end of this six-month process, I found myself thinking back to early September, when I Googled seemingly simple questions because I was too afraid to ask them out loud—“What is a whistleblower?” and “Does impeaching a president automatically mean he’ll be removed from office?” The first person I came across who was brave enough to ask these questions aloud was a third grader named Leo.
Leo appeared in The New York Times’s podcast “The Daily” in mid-November 2019. Throughout the 30-minute episode, “A Third Grader’s Guide to the Impeachment Hearings,” host Michael Barbaro and Leo worked their way through his long list of questions concerning the upcoming event. Barbaro repeatedly insinuated that many of the questions Leo posed were questions many adults were too afraid to ask from fear of seeming stupid or ill-informed. He suggested that most people were so uncomfortable with the idea of feeling inferior or making a mistake that it limited them, not only from being politically informed, but also from growing as individuals.
As a Georgetown student, I could relate to this feeling. Arriving on campus, I was instantly overwhelmed by the pre-professional and elitist motives that seemed to propel this student body towards exclusivity for the sake of exclusivity. Rather than being driven by the unknown, my courses, even the introductory ones, only seemed like opportunities to establish oneself in an academic hierarchy. It was as if I was supposed to have the answers ready before I even knew the questions.
I’m sure I was not the only one. The intellectual curiosity and intrinsic motivation that drives this student population is widely suppressed by a competitive academic environment that adamantly demands perfection. It’s not at all surprising that 30 percent of Hoyas reported stress that hindered their academic performance. The fear of failure keeps us from dropping that class, leaving that club, and writing about that topic we are genuinely interested in in favor of the one our peers and professors would like more. It pushes us to become resume climbers and stress Olympians. So we take notes, do the work, and subsequently leave our classes behind without remorse, only remembering them by their impact on our GPAs.
Listening to the podcast episode forced me to reflect on my first semester at Georgetown. They say your first year is the time to figure out what you’re interested in. I arrived undeclared in the College, excited to immerse myself in uncertainty and focus on self-improvement and growth rather than the competition that had defined my high school experience. I looked forward to the freedom to be able to change my mind.
Within my first week, however, every new face asked me what my major was, if I was applying to The Corp, to The Hoya, to Blue and Gray, if I wanted to go into investment banking, if I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. As I reused college application essays for club forms, printed a copy of my CV, and never heard a single person reply “undeclared,” I realized that along with making new friends, everyone was also sizing each other up.
As I listened to Leo voice each curiosity with enthusiasm and sincerity, I reflected on why I was so caught up in this mass academic mentality. In a place where asking questions and making mistakes should be the norm, they were taboo.
Third-grader Leo inspired me to pursue my academic curiosities and re-engage with my classes in a more meaningful way. I began to write my final term paper for my World War II history class less concerned about the grade and more mindful of answering the questions I had been dying to ask all semester and turning in an essay I was genuinely proud of.
When I received the paper, I was disappointed with my grade, a natural reaction. However, I soon recognized that just because I didn’t get the score I wanted didn’t mean the words I wrote weren’t worth reading, that all my hard work didn’t count, or that being extremely satisfied with the content I produced wasn’t enough. More important than a singular grade, writing that term paper convinced me I wanted to take more English and history courses during my time at Georgetown, even if I ended up in STEM.
Contrary to the common assumption that arises in such a cutthroat environment, this shift in mentality doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly become satiated by averageness. Now, instead of measuring my progress solely by my grades and my performance compared to others, I’ve learned to see failure as a learning opportunity rather than an embarrassment. I’ve found this has allowed me to push myself further than I thought I could.
Now, almost a quarter of the way through my second semester, I’ve come to understand that stifling curiosity can endanger the classroom. Given the cost of a college degree, we should be in a place where we make mistakes, learn, and become better people. We regress as an academic institution when people are too afraid to speak up in what should be the safest place to do so.
Being too afraid to ask questions and fail makes us grossly unprepared for the rejection that is an innate part of life. We need to prioritize self-awareness and value ourselves and our work ethics in a way that extends beyond a 4.0 scale. The smartest thing to do may just be to ask the dumb question.
Image Credit: Allison DeRose