Not all Questions Are Created Equal

questions

Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.”  The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue.  At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things.  Why would I want to do that?  My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”

I was very much surprised by what John had said.  I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.

Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive.  I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper.  Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.

I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence.  The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable.  Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.

Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions.  By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.

For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.”  Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done.  “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical.  For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?”  This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t.  This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.

Then there are questions that start with the word “what.”  Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.”  For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it.  It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong.  I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed.  “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.

Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind.  “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and  analysis.  For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.”  Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question.  As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people.  They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.

Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

thinking ninja

I see some people posting blogs (and comments about them) on thinking and the role it plays in human life.  As someone who has expertise in thinking—especially in what some call “critical thinking”—I’ve been feeling more and more like chiming in.  (By the way, I actually prefer the term “creative thinking” to critical thinking because all healthy thinking is, de facto, critical.)  Therefore, when I hear the term “critical thinking,” I hear redundancy.  Because all good and healthy thinking is naturally “critical,” critical thinking is really just another way to say “thinking thinking.”  Do you get my drift?

Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m trying to say is this:  Criticality is built into the very fabric of good and healthy thinking.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “healthy” a lot so far.  I think it’s really important to point out, before I get any deeper into my discussion, that I have to distinguish between thinking that is healthy and thinking that is unhealthy.

I have heard it said that all overthinking is somehow bad.  I would like to add a little nuance to such a claim because I don’t think that overthinking is necessarily problematic.  It depends on what is meant by “overthinking” and on whether or not the sort of thinking that’s being exercised is healthy or not.

Overthinking can be unhealthy if it is obsessive.  Obsession is a kind of thinking that is unhealthy.  Obsessive thinking is also ineffectual in the sense it is not used to come to any sort of conclusion or solve a problem or provide greater understanding or clarity.  The purpose of obsessive thinking—to the extent it can be called purposeful—is to perpetuate the obsession.  In a sense, obsessive thinking is a kind of thinking loop.  The same idea or thought pattern just keeps replaying in the head, thus crowding out everything else.  Healthy thinking—when it is done well or artfully—liberates the thinker because it (hopefully) leads to a breakthrough or even an epiphany.  Unhealthy thinking, when it takes the common form of obsessive thinking, enslaves the thinker.  He or she is unable to move beyond the obsession and is trapped.

Not all overthinking is unhealthy, though.  When I was in graduate school working on my MA and PhD in the liberal arts and humanities, I was trained to be a kind of critical thinking Ninja.  My analytic abilities were honed to a very fine point.  This point allowed me pierce through the surface of things and understand them deeply and profoundly.  In a sense, I was turned into someone who overthinks or hyper-thinks—I’m pretty sure I just invented a new word.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never accept things at face value.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never stop asking questions.  They remain skeptical.  They tear apart and analyze and then reconstruct.  They try to build associations where none existed before.

Some might read this and call it overthinking.  I would call it hyper-thinking—the kind of thinking I can never turn off.  Nor should I ever want to it.  Why would I ever want to embrace artless or sloppy thinking?  I can’t come up with a single situation where doing so would be in my best interest or the right thing to do.

One who has the ability to think well should think well.

I’ve certainly given us some things to discuss.  The floor is yours…

My Recent Telephone Conversation with Mom about Trump and Trumpism

forest-trees-northwestisbest-exploress

My Egyptian wife and I left Cairo and moved to America in 2015 to escape political instability and the personal danger that comes with it.  And now, a little more than a year after arriving in what was supposed to be a sanctuary, we find ourselves in the same predicament, in a country that seems to be politically unraveling or exploding or just going to the fucking dogs.

This morning I had a long and heated telephone conversation with my mother, a septuagenarian who lives in a beet red part of a mostly backward southern state.  (By the way, calling a state both mostly backward and southern seems to be a tad redundant, don’t you think?)  The purpose of my call was to see if she’d read an editorial that had been published on DallasNews.com, the online version of the Dallas Morning News, a daily—one of those old-fashioned things composed of real ink that’s been printed on large sheets of paper—which is destined to eventually go the way of dinosaurs.  I’d emailed the article to her several days earlier and had introduced it by saying, “It has come to this in the US—that sober experts, people with real credentials, are actually writing and publishing this sort of stuff.”

By the way, I advise everyone to read the piece at the link and then follow the writer on Twitter @TimothyDSnyder.  Snyder is a well-known historian at Yale University who offers advice on what Americans can do to prevent totalitarianism from arising in the US.  The underlying premise of the piece is that such ugliness is on its way and that we all need to be planning how to resist it (or at least survive it).  If you do read the editorial, you might want to spend the next couple of evenings sleeping with all the lights on.  Otherwise, slumbering in the dark after such a reading might cause you to have really terrifying dreams.

My mother said, and I quote, the writer of that article, “has gone off the deep end.”  My mom is obviously one of those Americans (of a certain generation) who believe “It can’t happen here.”  Because Americans have grown up thinking the nation’s shit don’t stink, many of them can’t recognize seedling fascism/despotism/totalitarianism when it sprouts up right in front of their eyes.

American exceptionalism is something I’ve discussed with her before.  The idea is deeply ingrained in her that the nation is somehow protected by something resembling a force field.  This weird belief that the US is somehow “chosen” and special is a danger unto itself.  The more people who think this nation is immune from fascism and the like, the less likely they are going to be able to see danger and realize that the time to take appropriate action was yesterday.

My mom, it seems, is one of those who is trying to rationalize or normalize what’s happening.  For more on the dangers of doing so, listen to the podcast found at the link below.

https://megaphone.link/SM3064947354

Anyway, getting back to my conversation earlier today with my mother.  Toward the end of our exchange, she said, “I trust the American people to not allow anything like tyranny to happen.”

I asked her, “You mean you trust those same people who voted for a man who ridiculed a handicapped person, called Hispanics rapists and murders, talked about grabbing women by their pussies because his fame allows to get away with such, and has blurred the line between ordinary Muslims and terrorists?”

Of course, my query flummoxed her and thus she didn’t have an immediate comeback.  I then followed that question up with a declaration:  “Clearly, your faith in the American people seems to be a touch misguided.”

I do think there are good Americans out there and that many of them, like Professor Snyder, are bravely writing about what’s happening, making them something akin to heroes.  I’ll have more to say about such types of people in a future blog.

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 5)

I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.

There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.

Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.

I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.

Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.

I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.

OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.

I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.