Friday, February 17, 2012

Think About Challenging the Status Quo

There's something to be said for tradition--it holds a feeling of comfort, of knowing what to expect; additionally, some traditions have specific purposes and special meanings. Tradition exudes stability and reliability. These are good qualities.

One might say the same thing about the status quo.

The saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," comes to mind. It's certainly not a bad motto, if applied to an appropriate situation. There's a TV commercial, though, that states (this may or may not be a paraphrase...) "if no one had ever questioned the status quo, the Earth would still be flat." While I couldn't tell you the product being advertised (I think it's a car...), that sentence sticks with me constantly, its bitty wisdom knocking at my brain. (I'm guessing that this was probably not the intent of the marketers.) 

How often do you question a tradition? How often do you question the status quo?

How often do you ask "Why?" Do you accept that which is, simply because it's always been that way? Because it's safe?

I read Andrea Batista Schlesinger's book, The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy, last fall, and it got me thinking. It spurred me on a mission. I want to combat illiteracy, and I want to rouse the critical thinking skills that sit dormant in safe minds. I have ideas; I have thoughts. Mine is not a safe mind: I question. For instance, I wonder why there are so many high school graduates who cannot write a coherent paragraph, let alone an essay. I wonder why and I wonder how that happened. When my grandmother was in high school, she learned more than most people know even after they've graduated from college nowadays. She knew Shakespeare. Silas Marner. Latin. German. And her grammar was impeccable. I have many of her old grammar and literature books--notes written in the margins--and I'm in awe of the knowledge she possessed. Even in her 80s, she could still recite poems she had learned nearly 70 years earlier. She questioned. She thought critically. I know she did those things because they are evident in those notes in the margins of her old high school books.

I had a number of teachers throughout my primary and secondary education who started the first day of class with this statement: "There's no such thing as a dumb question." (In actuality, I think what they really meant was that there is such a thing as a dumb question but that they wouldn't judge our questions openly.) It seemed standard practice to me. I learned to question; I learned to ask why. And when people approach me with, "This is a dumb question, but...", I tell them the same thing. Because even if it is a "dumb" question (which I've certainly asked plenty of in my life), questioning should be rewarded (especially in young people). In her book, Schlesinger's cause is to create educated citizens--people who understand that they have a civic responsibility to question policies and laws. People have a responsibility to question the so-called status quo. People have a responsibility to ask questions.

The questions can start simple--questions about traditions, about society's expectations, about what one sees on TV, reads on the internet, or hears on the radio. For instance, why do people create New Year's resolutions that they'll inevitably break? Every January bookstores prominently display self-help books, weight loss books, and healthy cooking cookbooks. Why don't people just resolve daily to strive to be a better person? Why do they have to wait until January?

Why do people give chocolates and/or flowers on Valentine's Day? Is it because society tells them they should? Is it because they're putty in scheming marketers' hands? Is it not enough to tell someone you love him/her? Is it not enough to show that person your love and respect with some other kind gesture...and not in the way that society dictates you do it?

Do you question why you follow the latest fashions, buy the newest gadgets, or shop at certain stores?

Critical thinking skills are on the decline. Many people rely too much on what they read on the internet--without questioning, without fact-checking. There is so much information available. Retrieving it, though, is not the same as interpreting it. If people don't interpret, analyze, and assess what they read (or hear or see), what will happen with the future of the world? What is already happening? Schlesinger writes, ". . .having access to an infinite amount of information is meaningless. What matters is how we use the information that we happen upon, seek out, and are taught" (72-3). How do we (as a society) use this information?

Questions beget curiosity. Curiosity begets creativity. Creativity is essential for coming up with possible solutions. "[W]e need. . .people to do more than vote and buy and click; we need them to question the systems that govern their lives. . ." (Schlesinger 153). Assuming that the world was flat wasn't harming anything or anyone, but look what we've learned since then.

Knowing an answer does not give a person intrinsic power, but asking the questions that can lead you there might.

Work Cited
Schlesinger, Andrea Batista. The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009. Print.

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