This post is about one simple three-letter word. Why. This one simple word is arguably the most important word in all of human history. When people asked “why?”, some of the greatest advancements in every subject from physics to ethics were made. The lack of people willing to ask “why?” has led to some of the darkest times in human history. Newton answering the question “why does the apple fall to the Earth” brought in the era of modern physics. (although technically he didn’t sufficiently answer why. That took Einstein) The fact that not enough people asked “why are we burning all these libraries and destroying all the knowledge of the ancient world?” brought about the dark ages. The word “why” can question authority and common knowledge assumed to be true. Often in answering the question, we come to our greatest discoveries.
We as humans tend to follow authority without question. Even when people claim to be questioning one authority, they are usually just parroting something another authority said without once questioning it. A quick glance at your Facebook feed during any heated political argument should make this obvious.
The other side of this coin is that when we gain some authority over others, we tend to demand obedience without questioning. This is most obvious when we look at how we act towards our children. In fact this post was inspired by a silly image shared on Facebook. It was a list of things about being a parent, and one of them was “when I tell you something, you don’t ask why”. Are we really doing the best for our children with this attitude? I admit I neither have kids, nor have any expectation of having them. So you may argue my lack of experience gives me no right to talk about parenting, but I think it gives me an unbiased opinion.
Listen, I know when a kid is three years old and the only thought it has are “I’m hungry” and “Lisa took my toy”, it is necessary to establish authority. But young kids are by their nature inquisitive. It to me just seems we do our best to squash that thirst for knowledge right away. Mostly because it makes our lives easier. At least admit that to me. You just spent 8 hours at the factory, you’re tired. But even what seems to be the most annoying of questions is important. For instance, you say to your kid “I’m your mother, don’t talk back to me”. When the kid asks “why?”, you just immediately jump to the assumption that he’s a smart talking pain in the ass. But really, if you think about it, it is a valuable question. The truth is you probably don’t have an answer to the question. It’s just something your parents yelled at you, so now you’re yelling it at your kids. But really, why? It is also important because in your answering the question you could maybe teach a lesson in respect and proper behavior. But instead we ignore the question and try squashing the behavior.
But we also try instilling this behavior of obedience to authority to other aspects of our lives. Take church for example. We force our kids to sit there and listen to some priest or minister or whatever, and if they ask “why?” we scream at them. I understand why. Our parents took us to church and yelled at us for questioning it. We think an education in morals requires religion. The real truth is that this BS can not withstand scrutiny. We know it in our hearts, but still feel a compulsion to put our kids through it. I myself am a perfect example of why you don’t want inquisitive children. I was forced to go to Catholic CCD classes as a kid. My mother is a perfect example of the naive adult that just assumes you need religion to be a good person. But at the same time she was extremely willing to allow me to absorb any knowledge I wanted. I without a doubt read more books, and watched more PBS, as an elementary school student, than you’ll ever meet. My CCD teachers had to suffer the consequences. I kind of feel a bit bad for them now when I look back at it. They were mostly just volunteers who had no real good knowledge of what they were teaching, so they were ill-prepared for questioning. I mean who expects an 8-year-old kid to ask “if god loves everyone, why would he create hell in the first place? It seems rather mean. When I do something bad, my mom punishes me. But the next day she still makes me breakfast”. I myself did not last much past first communion. Once I became aware of the idea that you were literally eating the body and blood of Christ, I pretty much knew it was stupid even back then. Even if the young person inside me still wanted to believe in a god.
But I think the aspect of this behavior of teaching obedience to authority that has the biggest detriment to our society is teachers. If ever there was a group of people we should be encouraging them to ask “why?”, it would be teachers. I think a few of the reasons why are: One, we think it makes our kids look a pain in the ass, and that reflects poorly upon us as parents. Two, we’re afraid they’ll bring that behavior home. Three, we’ve sort of equated learning with memorization and not actually understanding a subject.
I think this has dire effects on our society. One, it allows teachers to not actually have to understand the subject they are teaching. For instance, to teach middle school Earth Science you aren’t required to actually have a science degree. You are required to have an education degree. So they may not actually have a firm grasp on the subject they are teaching. They can get away with this because we aren’t encouraging our kids to question them. Two, like I said, the greatest moment of discovery often comes with answering the question “why?”. I don’t just mean question like “Why don’t protons repel each other in the nucleus of an atom?”. That is a wonderful question to ask. If there comes a day that my niece or nephew ask me a question like that I may breakdown and cry. But even questioning the whole philosophy of the current education paradigm is good. A question like “why do I have to take so much math?” can be extremely informative to a young mind. I am of course assuming they can answer it and not just yell “because I said so”.
A similar idea is our failure to question our textbook publishers. Most of our textbooks for elementary and middle school children are often written by educators and not people who necessarily have an expertise in a field. In fact, when it comes to science education, the textbook companies are often quite hostile to scientists trying to help them out. There are literally hundreds of professional working scientists that have over the years attempted to write textbooks for middle and elementary school children. Usually after being appalled at the level of education their own children were receiving from the textbooks of the time. Almost every one of them was basically told “Fuck off! We’re the educators, we know what we’re doing”. But do they?
The dominance we Americans once held in education is long gone. When comparing ourselves to the rest of the first world we’re usually last or near last in every subject. It’s a disgrace. I know it may come off like I’m against teachers. The truth is they have one of the hardest jobs. But maybe our standards are misguided. We still have the best post-secondary education available in the world. But they are becoming increasingly filled with students from other countries because our children are ill-prepared. Hell, even our university professors are increasingly foreign. While studying at UW-Madison I had one mathematics professor born in the US. I don’t have the answers, but I think squashing a child’s natural instinct to ask “why?” is more harmful than helpful. Not only just for them, but for ourselves and everyone else as well. Because to truthfully answer the question “why?” requires an actual understanding of the subject matter.
Then again, maybe this is just reason #478 why Fathed should not reproduce.