By Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
As the old adage goes, a famous physicist (I’ve seen the story attributed to both Richard Feynman and Isidor I. Rabi) became so successful not because he knew all the answers. Instead, it was because, when he’d return home from school each afternoon, his mother would ask him, “Did you ask a good question today?”
As a professor, I, too, try to encourage my students to pose tough questions. I typically begin my courses outlining four types of questions that we use in social sciences: explanatory, descriptive, predictive and prescriptive. While each type has its function, explanatory questions (Why did the prime minister do x? Why did World War I break out? Why do leaders make peace?) are the ones that come up frequently.
But there is a common pitfall that confronts students when they seek to generate these important explanatory, or “why,” questions. Students sometimes confuse “why” questions with “WTF” questions.
WTF (what-the-f***) has become texting shorthand for expressing moral outrage. An example of a WTF question I typically provide the class is if I were to ask my spouse, “Why didn’t you take out the garbage?” Most everyone has been on the asking or receiving end of such questions. And most everyone knows that the speaker isn’t actually looking for the answer. Instead, the speaker is looking to express annoyance. “Why, you ask?” the hypothetical spouse might reply. “Because I’m a lazy boor.” And the conversation comes to an abrupt close.
In this world of ours, there is plenty of outrage to go around. I want students to feel passionate and even angry about aspects of the public state of affairs: how else will they be motivated to improve this world we live in? But there’s a great risk that WTF questions will lead to analytical closure. Instead, posing a neutral “why” question while setting aside one’s moral judgment of the action — at least temporarily — can help generate the kind of deep understanding that will help us ultimately become more engaged global citizens. But it means that students really have to pause to determine what it is they are seeking to better understand. And, as they sift through the evidence, they have to be ready for an honest answer.