Just Ask

Why my father knows so much


When I was young, I used to accompany my father to community meetings and rallies for local political candidates. We sometimes went to lectures at the high school or the local library on subjects as diverse as FDR’s legacy and the paintings of John Singer Sargent. Whatever the occasion, my father always had something to say. He would ask a probing question or make an incisive comment. As a result, I assumed that he knew something about everything.

How could this be? He was an educated man, to be sure. He was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (a neighborhood that was, at the time, unglamorously poor). When a friend applied to New York’s great magnet high school, Stuyvesant, he followed suit and was admitted. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, and then, after serving in World War II, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Missouri. It’s an impressive trajectory, but his education had been focused on the sciences; how was it that he knew so much about other things—Stickley furniture and the Battle of Waterloo, for example? He was a voracious reader—famously reading Carlyle’s French Revolution on the plane on the way to an industry meeting about rocket propellants. Still, where had this wide-ranging knowledge come from?

I recently put the question to him. He explained that, as a teenager, he had made a pact with himself to ask a question in any gathering he attended. The exercise had honed his ability to listen, speak, and engage with whatever was transpiring. Before long, he was not just asking questions but also making comments.

As my father readily admits, his initial impetus was simply to be noticed. He came from a poor background and, though very intelligent, lacked the polish of the more privileged people with whom he came into contact. Asking a question was his way of asserting his presence, often in settings where he felt marginalized or ill at ease, but also of finding a way of fitting in. In speaking up, he received acknowledgement, which led to greater confidence, which led to greater assertion, and in the end, to greater knowledge.

Ever since my father brought his method to my attention, I have urged my shyer and more awkward students to follow his example. I tell them to try to speak at least once during a class, if only to ask a question. Doing so helps them acquire a profile in class and hone their speaking skills. It also requires a sort of attentiveness that helps them better engage with the material. In asking a question, they are also likely to learn something and, almost inevitably, become more confident. In time, they will contribute to the conversation. And eventually, they may be able to dazzle their children with their wide-ranging knowledge.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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