What Ever Happened to Questioning?

A response to Tim Deenihan’s “What’s it all about, Friend?”

Questioning—the value, the right, the skill—is the crux of the matter. I chatted yesterday with a fellow parent in the parking lot at my son’s school. Her daughter had been his classmate until economic disasters forced her family to transfer her out of the much-admired independent school, where students are encouraged to “Question Everything,” to their highly regarded neighborhood public school. Now, two years later, my fellow parent expressed determination to return her daughter to the independent school, regardless of the cost. Her intent erupted after her daughter came home numerous times spouting what she had “learned” in Social Studies: opinions, propaganda.The teacher had adopted a certain political perspective and taught it as if it were the only perspective: The Truth. The parents met with the teacher and then the principal. Neither saw any problem with the teacher’s presentation of “facts.” Horrified, my friend and her husband began the process of re-enrolling their daughter in her former school.

Many (not all) public, and perhaps some private and parochial, “educators” engage not in education but in indoctrination and obedience training. (Yes. I know. Public education was designed to indoctrinate, not educate. That is a discussion for another time.) Suffice it to say, for now, that intelligent, thoughtful questioning has become rare.

Questioning requires of all parties to a discussion a great deal of self-confidence (as opposed to arrogance or bravado to cover self-doubt), strength (as opposed to power), and the resultant flexibility to consider a variety of answers and perspectives without feeling threatened. Perhaps most necessary of all is a sense of safety in the context one occupies to openly think through something—“to think out loud,” as it were, expose one’s thought pathway. To be in a learning mode on Facebook or in any other forum is to risk making a mistake or simply being undecided in public; to be criticized by black-and-white non-thinkers to whom it never occurs to pay attention to or share a thinking process; and who, instead of using Facebook as the forum it could be, hide behind it as “a mask” (my son’s interpretation of “cyber-bullying” behaviors he has encountered in normally mild-mannered friends). Electronic forums allow such people to be intolerant of any opinion other than their own and, if they are so inclined, to express themselves abusively to other “speakers” in safety.

Many people have forgotten (if they ever knew), how good it feels to engage in a true dialogue, that true dialogue is even possible! They have forgotten that one who questions may be interested in learning from and with, as opposed to challenging, the intended receiver of his or her question. Fear of seeming stupid, un- or misinformed, or not being “right” terrifies them into silence or spurs them into reactive verbal warfare. Likewise,when asking a question or posing an alternate perspective, rarely does one receive a response that invites joint exploration of ideas. Though there is plenty of potential for dialogue on Facebook, genuine collaborative dialogue is rare there. And once a fracas begins on Facebook, the war-mongers seem to come out of the woodwork to declare rigid opinions and disdain for each other. What might have begun as a thoughtful conversation escalates into a shouting match. People only listen to each other to catch a point they can counter. Nastiness prevails. Nothing productive comes of the interaction. Instead of exchanging ideas, participants exchange inanities and insults.

I have been fortunate to “meet” people on Facebook through friends—the way one would at a party, perhaps—with whom I disagree and yet can exchange ideas, learn, and develop my own point of view. I often watch my own and their perspectives stretch, change, or grow. We often evolve together through dialogue. I have learned to choose not to engage in the other kind of interaction,not even worthy of the label “conversation” and highly destructive. I have no interest in it. I cannot escape feeling saddened by it. Yet, who is to say this is not simply a newly amplified, more visible form of a very old phenomenon that has always been a part of human interaction? Perhaps because it is recorded for us to examine, we are noticing it in a new way.