Friday, April 20, 2012

Q is for Questioning

Here are some nice people inside my thesis installation work.
I was lucky enough to get to go to Hampshire College for my undergrad. Hampshire is a school known in most circles for its goofy quirk of having no grades, which SNL everybody knows means that we all studied ultimate frisbee and did a lot of drugs. Of course, it's simply impossible to take your education seriously when your professors obstinately refuse to tell you exactly what to put in your papers and give you essay-length evaluations of your strengths and weaknesses instead of competitively ranking you using a numerological system that gives no information about the quality of your work relative to your own abilities. Snarl. Okay, okay, I'm sorry for the snark. It's just that if I describe my year-long senior thesis work to someone without telling them where I went to school, they tend to get really excited. If I then accidentally drop the word Hampshire (or, god forbid, mention it first), they get the kind of slow, dreamy, glazed look of someone who is trying very, very hard to restrain themselves from laughing their drink all over my shirt.

This is very sad. People slack at every college in the country. Not everybody who goes to Harvard is a genius, gives a shit about their studies, or goes on to become an interesting person. Plenty do - but then, so do plenty of people at Hampshire, which has excellent graduate school acceptance rates and sends hundreds of kids out into the world every year who have managed to create a completely self-determined thesis work usually before the age of 23.  The system at Hampshire simply amplifies the tendencies of its students more than most schools - you can slack harder and you can work harder. Whatever. I'm over it. If it works for you (and it did for me), Hampshire is an awesome and extraordinary place. And part of that comes from the fact that it forces you to question. What's so groovy about that? More after the jump.

See, a Division III project, the year-long thesis every student has to complete, is entirely self-created. No professor is going to tell you what to do. It is absolutely your responsibility to invent it. There's help and guidance along the way, of course, but no one will decide it for you. That means you have to ask the big, hard, scary, grownup questions a whole lot earlier than most people: what do I want to do? What do I care about? What's important to me? What is interesting? What hasn't been done before? What has been done before that is like what I want to do? Who can help me? Look, in a conventional major, you just don't have to face this stuff. Your requirements are predetermined. Maybe you have some flexibility, maybe not. But nobody is giving you the big shrug and saying huh, well, I guess you'd better figure this one out, buddy.

Here's a picture of an equation she collaborated
upon, illustrating my father's demise. It involves
forcible ukelele removal and the integration of a
a calculus function of the area of God.Yes,
Virginia, this is more interesting than high school.
Some people try and find the easiest answers, of course, and some people simply give up on the question. But for those of us who have always wanted the freedom to discover within our educational framework, Hampshire is an utter blessing. In all honesty, though, this post isn't about Hampshire so much as about what Hampshire supports - the right and the need of many of us to question the way things are. My sister was completely bored to tears in high school, but when she and my dad approached the guidance counselor to see about getting her some alternative or outside projects, the counselor just told her to suck it up because "we all have to do things we don't like to do." (The glimpse that gives me into what her life must be like makes me almost sorry enough for her to forgive such utter twaddle. Almost.) So what did my sister do? She took the high school equivalency exam and started The Nine Sisters Academy for Revolutionary Pedagogy and Adventure with my dad. She was, um, fourteen? fifteen?

Who is going to do more interesting things, the kid who listened to the counselor and went back to class to sleep through seven periods, or the kid who goes off and starts her own school dedicated to the Muses? (That's the Nine Sisters, if you missed it.) We know perfectly well that asking questions and refusing to sit like slugs passively accepting an education that feeds our souls with all the wither of a bucket of salt water is what leads to innovation, magic, beauty, invention, art, and all the breakthroughs that mark the best of the human spirit. We know that our inventors and our quantum physicists and our artists make the incredible things that they do because they are curious and have pursued their curiosity. We know that never asking questions leads us to become certified public accountants who wonder on their deathbed why everyone made such a fuss about existence. (Okay, that's harsh, but you know what I mean.) And yet, somehow, we still feed ourselves day after day into channels that suppress our right and our need to wonder about other ways of doing things. From early childhood education onwards, we're taught not to ask questions, or at the very least, what questions we are allowed to ask. How many of you have never once seen a teacher get mad because someone asked a question they weren't "supposed" to ask? The suppression of curiosity leads exactly nowhere for the human race, and yet it's all around us.

The hardest question, always, is why? Anyone who's ever spent time with a four-year-old can attest to this. You know how maddening it gets when every answer is met with another and another and another "yeah, but why?" until, exhausted, you throw up your hands and you say "I don't know." Ask until you get there. It's in that moment that magical things happen. That's the place that the teachers and politicians and corporations and parents and everyone else who squashes our curiosity is frightened of: the unknowing, and the admission of unknowing, and the possibility of being wrong. But it's in that gap that newness comes into the world, that invention is born, that beauty springs out. Listen, here's the question that leaves me with my faith in the soul.

Why do we experience beauty? I don't mean the beauty of a person - that makes sense, because attraction leads to mating, etc. I mean why is a sunset beautiful to us, or an ocean, or a sunny day, or a rose? There's no evolutionary advantage I can see to finding fragmentary moments of existence suddenly and inexplicably heartbreakingly lovely. It happens to people all over the world, even people who are suffering mightily; it seems to have very little to do with happiness, or intellect, or education, or creative ability. Have you ever been so touched by a moment of wonder that you felt yourself almost crack, as if the beauty of it all was just too big to fit inside you? Why the hell does that happen? It makes no sense. And yet it's there. And in the unknowing of it, the pure fact that it is, humanity is born. We are touched by something unknowable. Call it God if you want, or the divine, or oneness, or madness. But part of the glory of that feeling is in knowing that there is no explanation, no answer that we can tidily assimilate. It invites a questioning on an enormous, grand and marvelous scale, the scale that leads us to do great things. The bigger the question, the bigger the answers you will find. Go on, ask the biggest question you can get your hands on. Because what are we here for, if not to explore? We come into the world unknowing; existence itself is a questionmark. The world is a mystery whose solution is too large for us. Don't go through life without a giant, gleeful, terrifying, glorious space for discovery inside your chest, for if you don't ask, how will you ever come to know an answer?

I'd like to leave you with a story I heard somewhere, probably from my dad, that exists in different version all over the place but is apparently a traditional tidbit of Rabbinical folklore. Okay, so when you're in the womb, an angel comes along and teaches you all the secrets - of the Torah and the Talmud, I guess, but I would suspect everything else also. All the wisdom, you've got it. But when you're born, you open your mouth to speak, to say everything you know. And the angel comes and puts its finger to your lips, and says Shhhh! and bam, you forget everything. So those first words turn into a wail, because you have forgotten something important and you don't remember what, and you must spend your whole life relearning. (Along the lines of a Just So story, this is why we've got the philtrum - the little channel between nose and lip. The angel's finger fucking burns, man. No wonder we yell.) So why the angel would bother teaching you in the first place if you're just gonna have to forget, I don't know. Maybe it's so that you won't take wisdom for granted, or so that learning becomes beautiful to us in life because it echoes something forgotten. Maybe the faint remembrance of having lost it is what leads us to seek it out in life, what gives rise to curiosity at all - this quiet, distant echo of having known everything, of almost seeing it all. That's what drives us, after all - the longing to know. Questions make us human. Ask them and ask them, and don't trust anyone who tells you not to.


  1. I learned at a pretty young age not to ask questions, but it was because I couldn't get satisfactory answers. I learned to seek out the knowledge on my own.
    That being said, I ended up in a really good high school and had a pretty unique education from about 5th grade on (unique in the country).

    One of my favorite moments:
    My advanced bio teacher was really big on us not just accepting what he said as truth (this part is a longer story), so, one day, to prove his point, he gave us fake notes. Being me, I knew they were fake. I looked over at the one other person in the class that realized something was wrong, and we put our pens down and just sat there. The next day, he gave us a quiz over the topic, and my friend and I were the only ones that passed, because we were the only ones that knew the actual information. Everyone else answered based on the previous day's notes.

    1. That's an AWESOME story. And totally the opposite of MY high school biology experience, which was word for word the AP bio textbook. I did, however, have a really cool, somewhat similar experience during a class on Tibet my first year at Hampshire. Our professor & our TA had both traveled extensively in Tibet, were followers of the Dalai Lama, & were openly clear about their stance on freeing Tibet from Chinese occupation. They gave us a book to read about Tibetan history, written by an American, purporting to be a "history" of Tibet, which I found to be not much more than prettified propaganda despite its pro-Tibet, anti-China stance - opinions presented as facts, blatantly biased reporting of incidents, etc. They asked us how we felt about the history presented in the book, and the other students all began eagerly acclaiming the narrative of freedom and justice etc etc. I and one other student, however, raised our hands and said we found it to be inaccurate and biased, and that we took issue with it being presented as a history. Our professor turned to the rest of the class and said, "Actually, I agree with them. I wanted to give you this text to point out exactly this: that just because a text is in line with the ideas we think are correct doesn't mean it is a reliable or accurate work." He then proceeded to point out the errors and assumptions presented in the text. I LOVED that - especially because it showed that having a "liberal" viewpoint doesn't mean you get to stop asking questions.

      I'm glad you came to a point of simply seeking out knowledge for yourself. That's a wonderful skill to have, and I wish more people were driven to learn it.

  2. That's a great story, too.

    It's too bad that people mostly just don't care. They don't want to know, and they don't want to make decisions. Well, it's not so much that they don't want to make decisions as not wanting to be responsible for the decisions. If that means not making them, then they are fine with that. I just find it sad.

    1. I'm with you on the sad. I just think that a lot of people are never given a chance to learn that curiosity and knowledge are exciting, beautiful things. Just getting to be the kind of kid who gets to explore, wonder, daydream, and discover is its own kind of luck - based on your parents, the place and time in which you're born, and so much more. I do think some kids are more naturally curious than others, but I also think that a lot of children learn pretty quick that asking questions gets them punished, ignored, ridiculed, or in trouble. I mean, don't you have a hard time imagining a young child who isn't naturally curious? I do. It's who teaches us to ask (or not to ask) the questions that makes the difference.

  3. Unfortunately, I think most people, even most children, don't really want to think. That's the main reason they don't ask questions. There was this teenager I used to teach, and he would have questions. The problem with him was two-fold:
    1. He didn't actually want to think about the questions he had or do anything with the answers.
    2. He had no filter on his mouth (so he'd ask the question that flitted into his head before he could stop himself).

    So he'd ask a question, and I'd start to answer, and he's lose interest before I even got started because he didn't really want to think about it that much. It was very frustrating. And he's grown right up into an adult that doesn't think. About anything. Least of all about the consequences of anything he happens to be doing at any given moment.


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