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Learning from stupidity

Jackie Winfield

Stupidity and innovation
Approximately five hundred years ago, Copernicus theorised that the earth rotated on its axis once daily and travelled around the sun once per year. This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing notion at that time that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun travelled around it. Copernicus’s theory was regarded as heretical, and I have no doubt that there were those who thought both Copernicus and his ideas to be ridiculously stupid! In 2005, we know that Copernicus’s “stupid” idea was not so stupid after all. In fact, it’s common sense. Many others thought by some to be stupid – among them the likes of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – continued along their chosen paths to be recognised eventually as geniuses, inventors, pioneers, and world leaders. Hundreds of stupid or impossible ideas turned out to be great – great inventions, great philosophies, great accomplishments... Yet we continue to prejudge unfamiliar or novel ideas and actions, and readily attach the “stupid” label despite our own lack of experience, our inability to view the world from the perspective of another, or our own biases and stereotypes which (mis)guide us in evaluating what is deemed worthy.

Stupidity and “badness”
The “stupid” label can be terrifying. It has been said that most children (and possibly, adults too) would prefer to be thought of as “bad” rather than “stupid”. As such, much of the inappropriate behaviour they exhibit may well just represent unsophisticated, and usually unconscious, attempts to divert attention from the gaps in their knowledge and experience, to divert attention from their “stupidity”. If twelve-year-old Joel is still struggling to master basic multiplication, maths lessons may become much more satisfying by avoiding the actual maths, distracting other group members from set tasks, testing the limits of the teacher, and possibly, managing to gain the respect of a few peers by being sent to the principal’s office! If Joel admits that he cannot do multiplication problems (perhaps, because he has attended ten schools in five years), he runs the risk that teachers and children alike will “know” how “stupid” he is. He has probably been told this many times before, and so there is no reason to expect that his “stupid” question or his admission of ignorance might be greeted with a smile or a word of encouragement or the offer of further assistance. No. It feels safer to be thought of as “bad” or “uncooperative” or “aggressive”, none of which exclude the possibility that he is also “bright” or “intelligent” or “clever”, positive labels which are highly-valued in modern societies.

The value of stupidity
Stupidity is not valued by many; in fact, the label of “stupid” carries with it enormous stigma, stigma which is not easily forgotten. Yet surely, it is often through stupidity that there is growth and learning? If someone introduces me to a concept or an idea or a perspective which I am unable to understand, perhaps I need to ask a “stupid” question. It might take great courage to ask the “stupid” question or question others’ “stupid” answers, but surely, it can only be through an acknowledgment of one’s own ignorance and infallibility and limitation that one will be able to engage in those experiences which will move one along the journey of development and change? It may well be that there is no such thing as a stupid question, only the ignorance which remains by not asking it.

Lifelong learning from stupidity
As lifelong learners, we need to get involved with the world in all its complexity, to reflect on our experience, to relate seemingly-unrelated ideas, to compare the present and the past and the future. A whole-hearted engagement in this process will place us in situations where we might feel alien, or we might say something inappropriate, or we might even admit our imperfections. But the potential we have can only be actualised through experience, and this is why wisdom is considered to emerge with aging and the passing of time. One wise, though hardly aged, woman said, “Stupidity is a great teacher, not always a kind one, but an effective one.” I have learned many important lessons from my mistakes, from my failures, from my ignorance, from my stupidity ... At times, these lessons have been uncomfortable, even painful, but I trust that I will continue to learn from my own stupidity and that of others, to ensure that I learn truly from all experience. I would like to encourage you to do the same ...


This feature: Winfield, J. (2005) Learning from stupidity. Child & Youth Care Vol.23 No.10, p.25
Jackie Winfield is a Child and Youth Care teacher at the Durban Institute of Technology, South Africa.