Doubt, ask and progress

In a society that settles for binary answers, what’s the relevance of a questioning mind?

Updated - September 23, 2016 02:50 am IST

Published - January 24, 2016 05:00 pm IST

The manner in which a question is asked is also pertinent to how it is received. Photo: K. R. Deepak

The manner in which a question is asked is also pertinent to how it is received. Photo: K. R. Deepak

As students, we are encouraged to get our doubts cleared by teachers, especially before a test or an exam. While encouraging students to ask questions is extremely healthy, teachers should also let them know that being in a state of doubt, at least some of the time, is also essential for their growth and understanding. In fact, having doubts is a hallmark of an active, questioning mind. Even though teachers may clarify doubts, other perplexities are bound to arise when a student engages with a problem deeply. Unfortunately, modern society does not necessarily provide a space for a doubting mind to come to terms with itself.

We live in an age of instant gratification and quick fixes where people expect answers at the click of a mouse. As a result, patience, an old-fashioned virtue nowadays, is fraying. With impatience on the rise, we are also witnessing a society that settles for binary answers. From Facebook ‘likes’ to TV anchors clamouring participants on debates to answer Yes or No on complex social issues, the zeitgeist fosters black-or-white thinking. Apart from leading to unhealthy polarisation, this kind of thinking is simplistic and does not provide room for reflective and reasoned thought.

In today’s harried and hurried world, people expect definitive answers. Because people have diminishing levels of patience, we are willing to trade complexity for certainty. Thus, our ability to tolerate ambiguity, which indicates a mature mind, is receding.

We prefer pat responses to ponderous explanations. In fact, confidence is often mistaken for knowledge, whereas measured responses are seen as dithering. After all, nuanced answers that don’t necessarily fall into clear-cut categories don’t make sensational news stories.

But as students and citizens of a democracy, we have to appreciate the significance of a doubting mind. Minds that question, scratch below the surface and look beyond binary polarities are quintessential for the functioning of a vibrant democracy. Only if youth are encouraged to question the status quo, can we expect social change to take place. A doubting mind is one that simply does not accept things as they are. Asking why, how and what role can I play are fundamental to eradicating prejudice, fighting climate change and creating a more just world.

Furthermore, in India, we have a noble tradition of respecting elders and those in authority. However, at the same time, this reverence for older persons is often equated with not asking questions. In fact, questioning the authority is often viewed as disrespectful.

As a result, youngsters are often dissuaded from raising doubts, and, in the long run, tend to quell them all together. Parents and mentors have to stop treating questions as signs of impudence. In fact, when youngsters ask a question, it shows that they are thinking about what you said and are interested in the subject. Furthermore, a knowledgeable person wins the respect of others when she is able to answer thorny questions without getting heckled or defensive.

Even though modern Indian sensibilities may shy away from asking uncomfortable questions, an argumentative tradition has been a feature of our culture for aeons, according to Professor Amartya Sen.

In his book, The Argumentative Indian , Sen writes, “The Vedas may be full of hymns and religious invocations, but they also tell stories, speculate about the world and — true to the argumentative propensity already in view — ask difficult questions.” Thus, it should not be too difficult for us as a culture to reignite our questioning minds so that we may confront uncomfortable truths rather than shy away from them.

Of course, the manner in which we ask a question is also pertinent to how it will be received. It is important that we speak in a respectful tone even if we are challenging what another person says. Also, we have to make sure that when we ask questions, we continue to listen when the other person is providing an answer. Unfortunately, debates in the Parliament are a far cry from how reasoned and respectful debates should take place between opposing camps. It is indeed a travesty of our times that the youth cannot necessarily look up to our leaders as paragons of deliberate thought.

In her book, The Art of Listening , sociologist Les Back makes a case for “the importance of living with doubt in the service of understanding, of trying to grapple with moral complexity.”

Rather than embracing “false certainties,” we need to learn to tolerate ambiguity and cultivate the patience to ponder over labyrinthine problems that don’t necessarily have readymade solutions.

And, most importantly, students should never feel compromised for asking a question, however simplistic it may seem to others. In fact, professors need to worry when students do not have any doubts. Knowledge progresses only when we continue to ask questions.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.