Why?

Though it was, admittedly, many years ago, I recall vividly the very first seminar I attended as a Freshman in college. This was a real seminar, where the students were expected to carry the ball; not a “seminar” where students sat and listened to an “expert” talk at them. We had been reading Homer’s Illiad and about midway through the two-hour seminar I made what I thought was a salient point about the reasons Hector dragged Achilles’ body three times around Troy after killing him. Almost immediately another student looked at me and asked “why?” I was stunned. I thought the point was obvious. Why should I have to give reasons for what otherwise was as obvious as the proverbial nose on your face?

My blogging buddy Keith recently mentioned that his daughter, a college Freshman, was praised by her professor for writing a paper in his class in which she took exception to what the author had said. She was praised because she was one of the few students who disagreed with what she was reading and being told. She had asked herself the question: “why?” She was praised because she was one of the few who had done so.

Little kids ask the question “why? repeatedly out of their natural curiosity. Their fathers and mothers answer until they are finally forced to say “because I said so.” Perhaps this stops the question, but not for long. The child soon begins again: “Why Daddy?”  “Why Mommy?” Eventually they stop asking the question. And the schools rarely encourage students to ask the question, so the kids stop asking questions and increasingly believe what they are told  — even by chronic liars who couldn’t tell a fact if it came up and bit them in the butt.

Why is this? I never stopped asking this question after that first seminar. In fact, we had four years of seminars twice a week in which students were constantly asking the “why question.” It led me to philosophy where I have continued to ask the question ever since. Indeed, I wrote an ethics book that centers on the question “why?” in an attempt to encourage the students to ask that question at every turn — just as they did as little children. The “why question” requires that reasons be given for claims being made. One doesn’t simply accept as fact the things people say or write. One demands evidence and argument support — even in ethics, where we too frequently dismiss complex issues with the lazy response “who’s to say?”

Complex issues demand thought and the refusal to stop asking the why question until we have reached a point where the answer seems to be staring us in the face. When the weight of the evidence seems to have provided the answer, it is time to stop (subject to further review). But we never know when we have reached that point until we have examined the issue from both sides and have eliminated all possibilities. It is an exhausting process, but it is what makes us think when we might otherwise allow our mental faculties to sleep and simply accept as true a claim that is blatantly false. You know, the kinds of things that certain politicians say all the time.

There has never been a better time than the present to ask the “why question,” and we should not stop until it seems pointless to ask it any more. And that point cannot be reached without persistence and determination to know what is true and separate the true from the false, the absurd from the plausible, the reasonable from the unreasonable. We will never know where that point is until we have reached it. And it is best to have someone asking it with us, because two heads really are better than one — as I learned lo those many years ago in that seminar.

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4 thoughts on “Why?

  1. As a highschool teacher, I am confronted with the systematic and increasing lack of curiosity of my students. Asking “why” or even “how” implies a desire to find out more about something, to attempt to understand it and I have found that most young people I interact with simply don’t care. They are encouraged by society (the media, in particular) to flit from one topic, one tweet, one item to another so quickly that they really don’t get the point in “dwelling” on anything long enough to really grasp its meaning or impact. It’s no wonder Trump has garnered so much support in a society that completely disregards the reasons or consequences of what he says, proposes and does. They have moved on to the next sound bite before the question “why” ever gets asked. And it would not occur to most of them to stick around long enough to hear an answer anyway.

    • Thank you so much for the comment. I know whereof you speak, having taught at the “higher” levels of education for 41 years. You are spot on about the causes of the lack of interest among the young. I do believe it is as you say, the consequence of the entertainment industry combined with the toys that the kids play with today, supplied by the corporations that have no desire whatever to have the kids use their minds. So much of this starts in the home and unless we can break the habits of many years of poor parenting the problem will simply persist, if not grow. I hope you will continue to do what you can, though I am aware how difficult (and unrewarding) it can be. I always taught to those few who seemed interested and was delighted when a student every now and again seemed to catch on! As a retired teacher I can say it is those few who made it all worthwhile.

  2. Of the five traditional, almost cliched, fundamental duties of a newspaper story — explain the who, what, where, when and why — the “why” was always the most important and most interesting to me. For the reasons you write, Hugh, as does Cat, I always pushed the people I interviewed to explain why.

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