The Villainous Educator
By David Pappas
Teachers are heroes. Until we are villains.
Schooling comes under fire in every modern generation for being irrelevant to the times: teachers are not teaching the right things, the curriculum is outdated, students are not being prepared for the “real world.” Such accountability is important, for we educators are not serving ourselves. We are serving the community. But sometimes this accountability overlooks a key aspect of liberal arts education: that educators are in the business of helping students learn how to learn — not merely learn stuff; because the stuff of learning may change, but the process never does. And the process is one of inquiry. Questions.
But like a headstrong child, questions get us in trouble sometimes. This truth goes as far back as Socrates in the fourth century BCE. He who is now revered for his teaching and philosophical guidance was arrested, hauled before the Senate, and eventually put to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”
And the means of this alleged corruption? Teaching his students to ask questions.
Questions are at the heart of learning. Everything we know we know because someone, somewhere, at some time, asked a question. The central, interdisciplinary skill of analysis is all about inquiry. It starts with a line of questioning, followed by observation, interpretation, implication, and, ultimately, more inquiry. Science itself is built on a steady diet of inquiry, in which no concept is beyond examination, often leading to questioning the questions themselves. Indeed, inquiry is foundational to all knowledge.
And yet our students so often leave our classrooms only knowing how to answer questions. Not how to formulate them.
We teachers do a phenomenal job of asking questions of our students; but asking them is about the transference of knowledge, checking for understanding. This is a pedagogical tool by which students demonstrate their understanding of content and their mastery of skills. We even teach them how to answer our questions in a proper “short answer question” format.
But this can only take a student so far.
When we don’t teach students to formulate their own questions — even to question us — we keep them dependent on their teachers; we make them dependent thinkers. Dependent learners. Yet being a truly educated person — a lifelong learner, a self-directed learner, a world-class citizen — requires individuals to be adept at asking questions of their own. To be a free-thinker. In fact it is a societal assumption that an adult has the ability — even the right — to question.
But therein lies the rub: for when we teach students to question, it enables them to challenge existing points of view and power structures. This can lead to fear and discomfort for educators and others in positions of societal power who have to release students from dependency to independence. History is replete with those who, like Socrates, were chastised, marginalized, neutralized, and ostracized by their commitment to inquiry.
So, I do not mean to imply that this process of teaching and releasing students to question — to inquire — is easy or comfortable. It sometimes is not. Nor do I mean to suggest that this is merely about asking questions as if questioning is the end. No. This is about thinking and inquiring critically. It is about learning to ask good questions. Thoughtful questions. Critical questions. Sometimes such questions will be troubling. Uncomfortable. But what’s the alternative? Arrogance? Ignorance?
If that makes me a villainous educator, so be it.
David Pappas is an English teacher at Herron High School in Indianapolis.