The Art of Asking Questions

manufacturer and builder headingThe ability and art of asking questions is not just the sole domain of teachers. Articles about asking questions can be found everywhere. One does not have to read a pedagogical tome written by a PhD or a study written by some research team from an Ivy League school. One can find useful information in many places. And sometimes it makes more sense than a hypothetical 300 page book on “The Art of Questioning.”

Here is a gem of an article about asking questions that I found in an old trade magazine “The Manufacturer and Builder,” June 1870 by way of a video from a woodworker on YouTube. The article is entitled simply “Asking Questions” and is the story of a son remembering what his father, a farmer, taught him. The rules are simple and homespun. They are built on years of wisdom and may have to be read two or three times to understand their meaning.

art of asking questionsThe rules the young man puts together about questions are simple:

  1. Every man knows something that I do not know.
  2. Every thing, living or inanimate, has something to tell me that I do not know.
  3. It is better to ask questions of things than of men; but it is better to ask of men than not to ask at all.
  4. Lazy questions, impertinent questions, and conceited questions are the greatest of nuisances. They are like conundrums without any answers – they tend to make men dislike all questions; and when asked of nature, they get no response from her whatever.
  5. Asking questions is of no use, if a man forgets the replies.
  6. People like to be asked, in the proper time and manner, concerning matters which they understand. When they refuse to satisfy such inquiries, it is generally because the matter is not their business, or they think it is none of mine.
  7. Remembering a thing is not necessarily believing it. I will remember whatever is told me by men or by nature; but I will bear in mind that men may be mistaken, or I myself may misunderstand both words and facts
  8. The way to remember the answer to any question is to associate it in the mind with other answers connected with the same subject. It is well, therefore to follow one subject, if possible, until sufficient has been learned about it to be easily remembered; for the more one knows the more one can remember, while isolated facts soon get lost. As my father said, “Wholesale stores are the easiest to keep in order.”
  9. Never be ashamed not to know, but be ashamed not to learn.
  10. Never pretend to know; as for pretending to be ignorant, there is no danger of that, since all men are ignorant. Even in asking questions concerning the subjects which I have most carefully studied, I may truly say I desire to learn; for I may have made mistakes or omissions in my study which another might correct. As my father said, “Judge Pickerell spent forty years in collecting coins, and found at last a coin that was not in his collection in the hands of a beggar, who had that and nothing else.”
  11. As my father said, “Every stone is a diamond, unless it is not; therefore every stone may be a diamond, until you know it is not; and in finding out that it is not a diamond, you may discover that it is something more useful.”
  12. As my father said, “A man who is forever asking and never answering is like the swamp in our forty-acre lot. You can’t raise crops without rain on one hand and drainage on the other.”
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