"Productively stupid"

I was passed an essay today from 2008, by Martin Schwartz in the Journal of Cell Science: “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” Schwartz:stupid:2008.

Second, we dont do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid that is, if we dont feel stupid it means were not really trying. Im not talking about relative stupidity, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you dont. Im also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that dont match their talents. Science involves confronting our absolute stupidity. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, I dont know. The point of the exam isnt to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, its the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the students weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the students knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

The essay is tone-deaf in interesting ways. Schwartz begins by recounting a chance meeting with a female former classmate, now a successful attorney, who dropped out of graduate school because “after a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.” Instead of investigating further how her experience as a woman might differ from his, Schwartz reflects that everyone should feel stupid in graduate school. Likewise, he makes a great show of the overwhelming difficulty of science, without describing the support of colleagues. He describes, in other words, a certain kind of ideal that most science careers do not (and probably should not) match.