In my official capacity as “Supervisor de Escuelas,” I was observing a first-year teacher in a small elementary school in the City of Veracruz, Mexico. She held up a picture of some firemen and asked the class, “Que hacen los bomberos?” “What do firemen do?”
Immediately a hand shot up and an excited little boy could hardly wait to be called upon to answer. The teacher, seeing his excitement, asked him for a reply. “Rompen vidrios!” he shouted. “They break windows!”
The teacher’s smile disappeared and she looked at the boy with disdain. “No seas tonto!”
“Don’t be stupid!” she said and turned to the other children for an “appropriate” response.
The little face that had been so excited and eager to answer suddenly lost its intensity and the child sank back into the security of his desk crestfallen.
I felt sure that somewhere in the boy’s limited experience he had seen firemen, in the course of their work, break windows. It had obviously left an impression on him. I wondered if he would be so eager to raise his hand again.
In college one of my majors was Latin-American Studies. Dr. Martinez, a professor of Latin-American History, confessed to my class that he was a history teacher by default. “I always wanted to be a scientist. I loved science in high school,” he said. “I wanted to pursue some field of science in college and I expressed that desire to my high school science teacher.”
In essence, he got the same reply the little boy in Veracruz received. “I don’t think it would be wise to pursue a career in science,” his teacher told him. “Everything that can be discovered has already been discovered.” In other words, “Don’t be stupid.”
Dr. Martinez was in high school in the early1950s. That was before computers, the internet, space travel, organ transplants, disposable diapers and intermittent windshield wipers.
Ernest L. Wilkinson, who served as president of Brigham Young University in the 1960s, related the story of an alert young scientist who went west with his bride in the early part of the twentieth century to teach in a small church related Protestant college.
He wanted a modern research laboratory. A bishop of that church on a tour of inspection visited the college and questioned this young scientist. The bishop was not impressed by the arguments for a laboratory. He asked what good it would do.
“We might discover something new,” the young scientist replied, “perhaps even some great invention.”
“Nonsense,” said the bishop. “Preposterous. What things yet remain to be invented? Can you name one?”
Timidly this young scientist replied, “I think that man may sometime learn to fly, to fly faster even than the birds.”
“And for that,” thundered the bishop, “you will fry in hell. Flying, young man, is reserved for the angels!”
That bishop was the father of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the inventors of modern aviation.*
If, indeed, we have acquired that mental curiosity, without which we cannot be considered an educated man or an educated woman, we will not stop now acquiring an education. I think it is true that when we’re finished learning, we’re finished. In other words, let’s not be stupid!
*Ernest L. Wilkinson, Earnestly Yours, Deseret Book Company, 1971, pp. 202-203.
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