Friday, August 21, 2015

Any Questions?

Let’s start with two parables:

First, a Zen parable: A traveler went in search of knowledge. In order to attain as much knowledge as possible, the traveler undertook a great journey. The road was not paved or straight. At many intervals, the traveler needed to double back; at times the traveler needed to pause in order to determine the road already covered and the road that lay ahead. Sometimes the path was uphill; sometimes the footing was uncertain. 

At long last, the traveler arrived at the hut of the wisest person in the world. When the traveler entered the hut, the wisest person in the world said, “What is the question you’d most like to know?” This class will focus on questions – since we’re after wisdom and truth; not mere “answers.” Questions are generative: they lead to further thought, discussion. They form the basis of all Intellectual life. This course will arm you with some new questions to ask throughout your life, and it will sharpen your ability to ask questions – of yourself and your country. 

The second parable comes from a commencement address delivered about 10 years back by writer David Foster Wallace. It goes like this: 

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'" 

Note, the joke here rests on a question. In order for us to understand ourselves and our world, we need to understand where we live, how we stand and what we stand for. What water are we swimming in, and how has that water affected our values, goals, and beliefs? And what better place to explore this question than in an English class? Reading and writing are the core skills of this class, and these are the skills that will help us think more deeply about these vital questions. We’ll question everything – even things (especially things) we’ve come to take for granted. 

Remember, for example, that “The Star Spangled Banner” – a song you’ve probably heard hundreds of time and perhaps America’s most famous song – actually starts and ends in a question. So be ready to explore questions in this class, and I suspect that at the end of the year with hard word and careful thought, we won’t merely have answers, we’ll have more questions to accompany us on our lifelong journey toward truth. Oh, and have fun!