In my first high school political science course, I had a friend who was very clever and well-informed—the kind of self-identified young intellectual that read the New York Times like scripture. One class, he got into an argument on electoral reform in Canada with another very clever and well-informed student. I sat silently between them, surreptitiously Googling, “Is single-member-constituency bad?” and, “What does single-member-constituency mean?” It did not occur to me to ask out loud.
It’s hard to ask questions. This is especially true at McGill—at the Harvard of the North, no one wants to admit when they don’t understand something. With the wisdom of the Internet constantly at our fingertips, students often don’t have to. We can speak—or rather, remain silently confused—first, and Google later. This is true inside the classroom, but also in political discourse on campus. Political conversations are rife with answers, in the form of generally-agreed-upon soundbites about Justin Trudeau’s brand and the current political trajectory of the United States, but deficient in questions. If students are committed to becoming educated citizens and engaging in productive political discussion, we should ask more and assume less.
From kindergarten, students are told time and time again that there are no stupid questions. As kids become adolescents, however, this message is qualified: There are no stupid questions, but don’t look like an idiot. For young adults, it is less a truism than a heavily asterisked conditional: Actually, there are a lot of stupid questions, as well as offensive questions and delicate questions and divisive questions, and seriously, don’t look like an idiot.
This hesitancy to ask is heightened in an environment like McGill. While it’s a privilege to study among peers who reference Noam Chomsky and use words like “dichotomy” off the cuff, if one happens to be unfamiliar with Chomsky or dichotomies, it can also be highly intimidating. Whether in lecture or in conversation about the Conservative Party leadership race, it’s easier to nod in agreement than to be the one person who needs further clarification.
In an age with unprecedented access to information, political conversations on campus seem to operate under the assumption that everyone involved is equally educated on the issue at hand. If they aren’t, they should be, because all relevant information is now available at the click of a button. Questions have no place when everyone already seems to have all the answers.
However, this simply isn’t the case. Nobody has all the answers, and when it comes to politics, few even come close. Despite rising levels of education and the Google search bar in our corner, political knowledge remains low amongst young Canadians: In a 2007 study, Canadians aged 15 to 25 correctly answered an average of 2.6 out of 7 common questions on Canadian politics, scoring only slightly higher than their American counterparts. Perhaps all relevant information is now available at the click of a button, but it seems young adults are no more politically informed for it. Whatever the explanation for this enduring ignorance—the quality of information available, the echo chambers we so often confine ourselves to in our online research, or perhaps just the persistence of the “rationally ignorant” voter—as students and as citizens we do ourselves a disservice by pretending otherwise.
On a campus where one of the worst things you can be called is “ignorant” or “uninformed,” it’s difficult for students to admit when we’re lost in a conversation. But apparently, or at least when it comes to politics, we’re often not alone in this confusion. In these cases, it is important that we ask questions—especially stupid ones. It’s in the absence of apparently stupid questions that we get dual narratives and alternative facts—when people don’t know what’s going on, they fill in the gaps for themselves. A Google search can only take us so far. The next step is critically engaging with the information that we are presented—and with each other.