Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A teacher’s confession: There ARE stupid questions

We teachers try to encourage our students to ask questions by telling them this lie: there are no stupid questions.  Here is proof that stupid questions exist:

TEACHER: The paper is due on Friday.
STUDENT: When is the paper due?

It's important to encourage questioning in our students, but lying to them will not help. It patronizes them and undermines our credibility.

Here's what we should say instead: Sure, there are stupid questions and we all ask them sometimes, because let’s face it, it’s hard to pay attention all day long, and it’s hard to pick up every important (and obvious) point in all the readings we did last night. We all have surprising gaps in our knowledge of this complicated world. One person’s valid question is another’s stupid question.  So go ahead and ask that stupid question so you get that paper in on on time.

Instead of pretending that all questions are equally smart, acknowledge that we all need to ask a lot of questions to banish ignorance, some are better than others, and if I tolerate your occasional stupid question you'll tolerate mine and at some point we'll share some really brilliant questions with each other.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Future is Ours to Make

This week, Ta-Nehisi Coates said he has no hope for the future of America
Historians are sometime asked to predict the future. Surely, the thinking goes, all that study of cause-and-effect in the past must give you insights into what present conditions will lead to in the future. The wisest among the tribe of historians will demure. They know two things for certain about the future.

1. It is hopelessly unpredictable. Historians have such a hard time pinning down the causes of things that have already happened that they know it is foolish to identify effects for which the conditions and causes are still in flux. There are too many variables and factors, unknowns and unknowables, even in the distant past. The course of history is marked by radical contingency.

2. The decisions and actions of human beings will play a major role in shaping the future, and these are the most unpredictable factors of all. 

But if historians can’t predict the future, they can play a role in shaping it.

It is not yet determined which human individuals and groups will play the biggest role in shaping the future, but it is likely that those who feel a sense of efficacy will be more likely to act. Certainly the presidents of countries and corporations, governors, legislators, bankers and billionaires will continue to feel a great sense of empowerment, and will in the future as in the past, have an out-sized impact on the course of events.

Less certain is whether the great mass of people will play a role, and whether people motivated by greed and prejudice or a sense of fairness and justice will get the upper hand. And here, the historians can possibly have an effect.

Most historians have ignored the role of average people in shaping their own history. Part of the problem is that while leaders left behind endless written records, most others did not. Since the 1960s, however, a revolution has taken place among professional historians who have found creative ways to uncover the historical roles of ordinary folks.

Historians who ignore or downplay or dismiss this new history perpetuate the great lie that only “great men” will shape the future. That fosters a feeling of cynicism and defeatism among the good people living today who might bend the arc of history toward a better and more just world, if only they believe it is possible.  They need historians to tell them inspiring stories from the past to show them how it is possible.

2020 UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has found reason for optimism. More recently, he expressed a feeling of hope after watching the George Floyd protests. When asked to compare them to the urban riots of the 60s, he noted that the people participating in those events were exclusively black but the riots of 2020 represent a giant interracial mix of people.  See Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is Hopeful.

As if to illustrate Coates' point, the Mayor of Washington DC had city workers paint, in gigantic yellow letters, "BLACK LIVES MATTER" on a street leading to the White House.