In our fallen world, asking questions is how one truly learns, seeks truth, and finds wisdom. Yet in most schools, the questions in students’ souls are ignored or formalized into lifelessness.
I am a teacher. I ask students questions and reward them for the quality of answers they produce. Of course, I do my best to assist them in producing the answer I am looking for. This is what teachers are trained to do all across the country in our schools, public and private.
But this relationship between teachers and their students has devastating spiritual consequences, for it erodes students’ ability and desire to ask their own questions. In our fallen world, asking questions is how one truly learns, seeks truth, and finds wisdom.
In perfect innocence, questions are impossible. In Eden, when Adam sees Eve for the first time, he doesn’t ask, as one might expect, “Who are you?” He knows and declares, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.”
Neither does God ask questions before the fall. But when the Edenic harmony is ruptured, God views his creation across an abyss. Consequently, his first utterance to his creation in the fallen world is a question: “Where are you?” He follows with three more: “Who told you that you were naked?”; “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”; Lastly, and with much anguish, “What is this that you have done?”
By asking questions, God invites his creation back into his presence. But Adam and Eve spurn the invitation and cover their nakedness, refusing to be vulnerable before their creator, claiming their bodies and lives for themselves.
The Questions Continue, as God Invites Man to Ascend
Things didn’t improve with the next generation. After disregarding Cain’s sacrifice, God asks, “Why are you angry, and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain ignores God’s questions and murders his brother. Afterwards, God again seeks him out with a question: “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain’s response is a travesty: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He asks this insincerely, to make a statement, and thus it is not a question at all. Like his father, he spurns God’s invitation.
In Abraham, though, man first engages God dialectically. Responding to God’s covenant, Abraham asks, “O Lord God, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Elie′zer of Damascus?” God neither answers nor scolds Abraham for his question. Instead, he reaffirms the covenant and reminds him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chalde′ans, to give you this land to possess.” Abraham then asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” God honors Abraham’s questions not with definitive answers, but with an assurance of his own faithfulness.
Moses, too, asks questions. Upon receiving his call to liberate the Hebrews, he asks, “But who am I?” God answers, “Certainly I will be with thee.” Moses then asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” to which God declares “I am that I am.” God offers himself as sufficient for any question.
With their questions, Abraham and Moses are drawn closer to God, compelled to obedience. Asking questions is the first step to once again standing vulnerable before our creator, experiencing his presence, and knowing truth. But before we know truth, we must ask what truth is.
The Questions You Ask Reveal Who You Are
If questions are sacred, we should carefully consider the institution that conditions us to a certain disposition towards questioning. Schools aim to equip students with the ability to answer sundry questions. If students successfully answer enough questions, they graduate “college and career ready” with the skills and knowledge required to find their place in our global economy. Or so the story goes.
Much discussion of public education focuses on the inability of many schools, usually in poor neighborhoods, to meet the standards for college and career readiness. Much has been tried to make failing schools in poor neighborhoods perform like schools in rich neighborhoods. But there isn’t much concern about the type of person any schools produce. At the high-performing public school in which I teach, as long as students are admitted into college, we pat ourselves on the back and begin preparing the next crop.
But we should be concerned. These students, for the most part, don’t ask any questions. Or if they do, their questions are travesties: “Is this material on the test?” and “How do I get an A?”
Many bemoan this attitude, but these students are merely responding to their environment. Our educational practices and strategies are the culprits. Not the students. They are the victims. They have been conditioned to ask these questions, for they haven’t been given a chance to ask any others. In school, the questions in their souls are ignored or formalized into lifelessness.
When students are expected to do nothing more than produce answers to questions they have no part in asking, they may indeed give the appropriate answers, but these answers are meaningless, produced indifferently or dishonestly. Cheating is the elephant in the room at most high-performing schools. Most students cheat. Most teachers know it.
Meaningless Questions Alienate People
The first year I taught the Advanced Placement Language and Composition course, half my students cheated on their first semester finals. Even students I had come to respect and admire sacrificed their integrity for a few percentage points in the gradebook. The scandal caused some hand-wringing among the AP teachers and warranted a brief mention in the staff-wide meeting, which only encouraged teachers to be on the lookout and to suggest more draconian punishments.
But no solution could be found, because the cheating itself isn’t the problem but the culture that values students’ answers over their questions. If answers are what we want, answers are what we’ll get!
Furthermore, producing meaningless answers to irrelevant questions does not result in an education. It results in alienation. Stress, anxiety, and depression are the very air my students breathe. More than any Common Core standard, students master the skill of working for the weekend as if all our efforts are to habituate them to the drudgery of adult life.
Producing meaningless answers to irrelevant questions does not result in an education. It results in alienation.
I once asked a student what she had learned in chemistry the previous year. She stared blankly at me before wryly responding, “I took chemistry last year?!” We do a great injustice to the words “learning” and “education” when we tell students that they are the purpose of school.
What my student then realized is what Howard Gardner details in “The Unschooled Mind.” He reveals how many students from elementary to grad school may pass tests and earn degrees, but their supposed knowledge is absent in situations differing from the “text-to-test context” in which they learned it. The disconnect is a result, in part, of educators’ settling for “correct-answer compromises” whereby a student mimics understanding in the rote repetition of formulas, facts, or theories but lacks real understanding of fundamental concepts.
Gardner’s solutions to this problem put students in environments that pique their curiosity about the subject matter or, at the higher levels, that challenge their preexisting assumptions. For real learning to occur, Gardner shows, students must have an opportunity to see their own ignorance, and then ask and explore their own questions.
Without investment in the questions they answer, students become passive. Teacher asks questions. Students answer questions. Rinse and repeat. Students who refuse to answer the questions disrupt the process and are punished, ignored, or put into remediation. Some may question the question, however, and these brave souls are given an answer that reveals the hollow core of their so-called education: they are being prepared for “college or career.”
Education for a Life of Empty Consumerism
Gardner might have revealed the functional ineffectiveness of school, but Neil Postman in “The End of Education” details the “metaphysical” crisis. No longer serving the biblical God or the body politic, schools now serve “the God of Economic Utility,” which tells students they “are first and foremost economic creatures,” and that “[their] sense of worth and purpose is to be found in [their] capacity to secure material benefits.”
The end of students’ ‘education’ is a material life, not a meaningful life.
Postman argues this narrative is both insufficient and spiritually bankrupt. First, no evidence links a country’s educational performance with economic productivity. More importantly, though, serving this god prepares students for nothing more than a life of consumerism. As a result, the end of students’ “education” is a material life, not a meaningful life.
The day-to-day reality of students and teachers reflects this shallow purpose. When my students read “Macbeth,” they do so for the test for the grade for the college for the job. When teachers consider how to teach the play, we consider what academic skills to inculcate with the text.
Neither of us has any use for the truths it reveals or the questions of the soul it provokes: How do sin and shame twist the human psyche? What is the end result of a life predicated on “vaulting ambition”? Is Macbeth’s despair our despair, his fate our fate? If we do ask these questions, they are rendered clinical and lifeless, used to assess students’ academic skills, to assess their future buying power.
The problem is not that schools don’t teach students about the good, but that they destroy the ability to see why the good is worth knowing. Schools are indifferent to the dialectical process by which one finds truth, justice, and wisdom. It should be no surprise that students stop believing in them.
The problem is not that schools don’t teach students about the good, but that they destroy the ability to see why the good is worth knowing.
With knowledge of the good goes the concept of soul, the knowledge of self. I could not imagine an institution more at odds with Thomas Merton’s belief that education should “show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to his world—not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself.” Any attempt to get students to define themselves becomes a meaningless, graded assignment. “Who are you?” becomes a question asked on a predetermined schedule and answered as a sacrifice to a false god.
As a consequence, school don’t cultivate individual souls but anonymous economic creatures to be released not into the world but into a network of unrepentant consumerism. Schools maintain this illusion through canned curriculums, imposed instructions, and standardized tests. Schools enforce the illusion though arbitrary schedules dictating where, when, and what students do.
Because school turns students’ world into an artificial question with a predetermined answer, it can never accomplish Merton’s hope that education save them “[f]rom the hell of meaninglessness, of obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic lying…” Only when it can, Merton argues, will education be of value to society.
This Is Why All Education Is Ultimately Religious
Some may argue schools are no place for spiritual concerns, which are better left to religious institutions and families. This might be so, but schools should not then be working against these institutions. With extended school days and years, increased homework loads, and the demand for extracurricular test preparation, schools now dominate students’ lives, often eclipsing other influences.
Education is only an education if it draws out our soul to be inspected and found in disrepair.
Furthermore, if matters of the soul take place exclusively in one’s church and family, we should stop pretending that schools offer students an education. “Education,” it is often noted, comes from the Latin meaning to draw out. Education is only an education if it draws out our soul to be inspected and found in disrepair.
Once that happens, the search for higher truths becomes an urgent demand for our lives. Thus, an education that truly frees leads to the Son of Man who, on Calvary, asks God the Father “Why have you forsaken me?” and hurls himself into the abyss separating question and answer. In his resurrection, the abyss is overcome and our soul’s deepest questions satisfied.
Only then can we answer the question that Christ poses to Peter and all humanity, “Who do you say that I am?”, not with superficial knowledge but with a life of love, sacrifice, and obedience. Only then do we know ourselves. Only then are we freed from the hell of meaningless.
Educational institutions help free us only when they instill in us a reverence for questioning itself.
S.A. Dance teaches high school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has also taught freshman composition at Holy Names University in Oakland, CA and at Indiana University, Bloomington.