Teaching Why

The Obscure Penguin
—The Obscure Penguin—

(Originally written Nov., 2018)

I’ve always been bad at math.  I can do everyday math, of course, paying the bills, budgeting, doing the math it takes to survive.  In fact, I was once a cashier and I still know how to make change without scanning a product in a store.  Abstract math has always been elusive to me, and word problems?  Don’t get me started.  My math issues have resulted in failing grades in school, yet I received an “A” in geometry, even though I never took it.  Explain that mathematically.  I would take my algebra homework home and try to get my father to help me.  Dad was a cryptanalyst for the National Security Agency.  He broke codes.  He knew math intuitively.  He’d look at one of my math problems and he’d tell me the answer.  I’d say the teacher says I needed to show my work for how I got the answer.  He didn’t know how to show the work.  He’d try to explain to me why it was the correct answer – and it was – but it was like he was speaking Greek. Speaking of Pythagorus, years later when I read about the original symbolic interpretations of numbers, the original spiritual meanings of those symbols, I grew to have a great appreciation for the fact that numbers existed.  Subsequently, reading about the history of mathematics, I was fascinated by the mathematical geniuses who thought in numbers.  I am still amazed that some people have those kinds of minds, because they’re nothing like mine.

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years quite succinctly, it is that we do not have the same quality of mind.  I don’t mean solely from an “intelligence” viewpoint, although that’s part of it.  I mean that many of us assume because we think a certain way that everyone thinks the same way.  Not at all.  We communicate with each other, but that doesn’t mean we live in the same world.  Communication is a bridge but that bridge is not truth.  It is simply the path we take to relate to another person.  The assumption, of course, is that because we agree on a number of symbols to communicate, that we agree on what is truth or what is real.  Again, we don’t live in the same world.  Really, none of us do.  I believe, as have many philosophers in history, that the world is an illusion in some ways.

Education is, of course, an indoctrination.  If education does not encourage a student to ask why something is the way it is, then it is not serving the needs of a human being.  From the moment we begin our schooling as children our minds are being formed by the various teachers who encourage or cajole or threaten us to remember specific things.  I am happy to have been taught how to multiply and divide.  I use those skills today.  I am grateful I was bullied by teachers into learning how to type in the eighth grade.  I use that skill more than any other.  However, I think I would have been better served had math teachers told me why a particular mathematical skill was useful or needed or even how or why it came about.  I attended so many schools growing up, large, small, advanced and provincial.  They all lacked mathematical explanation.  To be honest, I was quite rebellious, even in the second grade.  I asked “why” a lot in math classes.  I rarely got an answer.  Looking back, I’m quite sure the teachers didn’t know why.  They knew how to do math and it was their job to teach it.  To them, math was as clear as a blue sky and they were impatient with my inability to understand the term “sky,” much less “blue.”  In my mind math teachers tended to be arrogant about what they understood and tried to convince me that I was stupid.  Yes, one even referred to me as stupid.  Did that cause a psychological math barrier my entire life?  Perhaps.  What am I going to do?  Shock therapy?

So, as you might expect, as a teacher it is of vital importance to me that I encourage students to ask why.  Some students (a fraction ) today will literally be students from preschool through Ph.D. programs, who find themselves instantly in teaching positions.  In fact, the industry of higher education in this country has grown to encourage it.  I am not criticizing that path.  However, understanding that path is a lifelong indoctrination is not apparent to many who have taken it.  How does one teach a mind to be free if it is shaped by those who have taken that same path?  How does one teach a mind to be free if it has been turned into a commodity, poked and prodded by parental expectations, school indoctrination and commercial appeals from various technologies?

If you live in a box it is awfully hard to understand the arbitrary authorities that have shaped that box.  That’s why I try to point out in my lessons what authorities I believe are necessary and which ones are clearly arbitrary.  I’m not referring to politics.  I’m referring to everyday life.  Today I teach writing in various electronic formats.  So, for example, when teaching television news writing I stress ethics above all when explaining why things are written in a certain way.  Many things have to be taken into consideration or the writing content can lead to disaster professionally and personally.  Why do you attribute?  Because you’re putting a statement into a context.  You’re not making a statement. You are reporting someone said it.  The man who has not yet had a trial is not guilty.  The authorities “say” he’s guilty.  Understanding context is important in a democracy but not everyone understands it.

Years ago when the U.S. invaded Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction, I argued with a friend that I did not support the war although I did support the troops.  I am a veteran myself.  He is not. He could not distinguish between those concepts.  In his mind they are inseparable.  He threatened to shoot me, kicked me out of his house.  C’est la vie.  Educated people have tended to become more reductionist in their thinking, more discriminate in their perceptions, more inclined to define parts of parts.  A fingernail is part of a finger which is part of a hand which is part of an arm which is part of a human being.  Some people see only a human being.  Both descriptions are correct, but how the mind sees the human being is not the same in both perceptions.

I truly try to be cognizant of the fact that all students have different minds.  They learn differently and some are more open to education than others.  I do sincerely wish all of them to be free.  I hold this truth to be self evident that every human being on this planet has an inalienable and equal right to life.  The quality of life depends so profoundly on what is learned.  The miracle to me is when human beings step beyond what they learn and begin to create their own worlds in a positive way.  That simple, and yet sometimes difficult, act improves the human condition.  I love to encourage students to ask “why” in the classroom, except when it comes to grades.  Because that has to do with math.