It’s summer, I live in the greatest city in the world, and I’m single... Life is good!
I hope you take even a little time today to reflect on what it means to be a citizen in a representative democracy. Hint: It's more than yelling "We're no. 1!" Happy 4th of July...
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-=[ Power, Questions & Democracy ]=-
-- Hanna Arendt
As in Emile Zola’s parable, our society resembles passengers on a runaway train, asleep or oblivious to the fact that the conductor and engineer have killed themselves.
No. You will not find yet another blind "rah rah rah" 4th of July post here. Instead, what I hope you will find here is an indictment of a nation plagued with a collective resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality. All compounded by a blind adherence to dogmatism and an dangerous intolerance toward ambiguity.
And it is threatening to kill whatever freedoms we can still claim. All while you're grilling and commiserating with your fellow compatriots.
In order to have a democracy, there has to be a vibrant, critically thinking populace. An important component of thinking critically -- I would say the most important component -- is the ability to form questions. I have written about the importance of questions in the past. Almost every act we take is an answer to a question. Sometimes we forget the questions, obsessing as we do on answers, and our thoughts and actions take on a mindless (uncritical?) quality. In my experience, questions have always been about power. Asking them enabled me to overcome the many challenges I faced as a young man -- especially challenges regarding where I “belonged” (or didn’t). This link between questions and power is at the heart of our democracy -- or what is left of it.
With the market controlling almost every aspect of our society, globalism shrinks our world, our power as citizens of a democracy will come from our ability and willingness to ask the right questions. To question our government, our educational system, our communities, ourselves. And by questioning I don’t mean merely questioning, but learning to look for and ask the unasked question. Inquiry is more than asking the obvious (often too simple) questions that come with yes or no answers. The art of the question is a process of discovery, asking, re-asking, synthesizing, and evaluating until we have come to an of uncovering of the truth. Or at least something approximating it.
Inquiry is more than an act, it is deeply embedded in the values and idea of a democracy. In turn, I define democracy as more than representative government; it is also a system that values equality, justice, and the peculiar idea that every member of a group has something of worth to offer the whole. In this context, a democracy requires a people that pays attention, thinks critically, and analyzes information effectively.
People love to beat up on teachers and schools, or try to lay the blame of our current educational standards to lazy or apathetic parents. This type of thinking (if it can be called as such) is exactly what I am talking about here. In attempting to find the one answer, we miss the forest for the trees. As in all social policy areas, the solutions education calls for are complicated, multifaceted. But we have a society obsessed with answers at the expense of first asking the questions. In that way we assure that nothing of worth gets accomplished.
We teach our children that the answer is all that counts. We test students to death, reinforcing the idea that correctly filling in bubbles on a piece of paper is the same as learning. Our educational system has become an assembly-line factory dedicated to the cause of test preparation while we throw out the guiding philosophy of critical thinking -- that we must discover, ask questions, accumulate evidence, make determinations.
We like to wrap ourselves in the flag on the 4th of July and crow that “we’re no, 1” but we don’t trust that our young can question the way our communities work, so we disinvest in education and the teaching of civics. Instead, we encourage our young to become mindless consumers so that they can better serve the ideology that the market is the answer to everything. We don’t teach them to question it, we teach them to follow it blindly. Not too much difference between that and fundamentalist blind faith, is it? We urge our children to choose better, but not in the creation of those choices.
This obsession to answer is what plagues our nation, as so many look for confirmations of their biases rather than an actual personal and collective exploration and exchange of ideas. How many times have you witnessed someone cutting-and-pasting a link and use it in lieu of real debate? Oftentimes, these links haven’t been questioned, nor consumed. Textual regurgitations I call them. This is what we teach our young. The fact is that I derive more intellectual pleasure in speaking with young people. Young people are naturally curious beings, full of awe and wonder, but we’re sucking this natural wonder out of them.
Like good educators, good societies understand the limits of absolute knowledge; they don’t try to teach everything there is to know. The best we can do for our children is to cultivate in them the habits of mind of inquiring, critical thinkers. They won’t get their critical thinking skills through rote learning, ideology, or group-think. Answers are not retrieved, they are constructed.
What would happen if Google took a day off?
Someone once asked the great Indian civil rights leader, Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western society. His response was, "It is a great idea." I feel the same way about the nation I was born in and love. Every year, on the 4th of July, I am sadly reminded of the potential of what we can become. But we will never fully realize our potential as a nation if we stay asleep...