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The Rhetorical WHY arises following my time in a Secondary English classroom, sixteen years working and learning alongside superb students. As many English teachers will know, asking “why” cuts to the core, and in my courses, students learned all too well that few questions we asked had simple responses. So “Why?” – or just as often its cousin, “So what?” – was our refrain. Our culture of inquiry (for want of a phrase) was simple: for any given topic, claim and explain whatever you could support. So a third familiar question of ours was, “How do you know?” Evidence was paramount – the more credible, the better.
The Rhetorical WHY is not some didactic belief of mine in the utter truth or superiority of anything posted here. I encourage everybody, as you read and think, simply to hear it as one voice contributing from amidst the rest. Preaching is not the aim here.
Some posts are essays, whether original or shared, that may be longer or shorter. Other posts may be shorter altogether. The bottom line is to offer ideas founded upon real evidence and avoid those based only upon opinion, preference, or whim. Ideas are rarely exhaustive, and details can always be added or reconsidered, which is really the aim – what else can be considered? Whose voice is missing? What presumptions belong to me or to you, as we learn what others understand? Raising the level of discourse isn’t meant to be a solution except perhaps for solving perfunctory thinking. Let’s improve the process of reaching solutions by listening, thinking, researching, discussing, and revising, then listening once again.
“Raising the level of discourse” came about more recently, perhaps three or four years ago. Listening to people in all sorts of venues and trying to account for their wide range of styles and proprieties, I still found a lot of similarity when it came to opinionated discussion: cursory, repetitive, quick, even strident, at times flat-out uninformed. The 24-hour news cycle, we know, relies upon discourse and talking heads – some worthwhile, some windbags. I don’t solely fault TV news, even if John Stewart did retire at 53 as America’s most trusted news anchor. Nor do I solely fault the Age of Twitter, even if long-form journalism is fading away – what really may be fading away is our attention spans. With students, my example was standing in line at the local Tim Horton’s as conversation turns to the latest current events. While listening, perhaps we’re sizing up the positions put forward by different people – listening for evidence to explain why someone believes what they say – and realising as we speak that they’ll be sizing us up, too. On the other hand, perhaps we’re sizing up ourselves, listening and realising how little we know about that topic, and deciding to keep our mouths shut instead.
Raising the level of discourse is one part empathy and one part accountability, amongst whichever other parts, and it means accepting the responsibility for listening and thinking, even researching, before we speak.
The phrase is hardly original, I grant, and a little stuffy, but that was the idea – something to smirk at even as it cues us to own what we claim to know and reminds us of our responsibility to everyone around us. Contained in the phrase is the dichotomy of being selfish and selfless, a sliding scale that I applied with students as literally as possible – there’s me, and there’s not me which, in some ways, captures all the wisdom we’ll ever need. For English students, I likened selfish to scholarship, some kind of personal academic endeavour (the obvious side of going to school), and selfless to service, some kind of generosity or stewardship (the not-so-obvious side).
So, for instance, every September, I asked each of my classes a set of framing questions. If it were Gr 9s, I might say, “As you sit in high school classrooms, working day after day, making your way towards adulthood – university, parenthood, career, whatever – what are you contributing that will eventually help the Gr 2s and 3s in the other building over there?” And I’d point out the window where, down below, all those young kids were out in the rain playing games and eating recess snack. Obviously, no immediate response was expected; asking the question was enough, and we had at least the next ten months to consider it before they were promoted to Gr 10, when I’d present the next set of framing questions.
Something else I continually reminded students was to ask their teachers, “Why are we doing [this]?” – whatever that day’s lesson happened to be. The teacher owed the students a good explanation, I explained, and if they couldn’t offer one, they weren’t doing their job. Ask why, whether you expect a response or merely wish to reflect. Either way, it’s awfully important. (It’s also more polite than saying “So what?” all the time.)
All this, of course, helps explain why the “Why” developed such a dreadfully potent reputation in my courses, especially by Gr 12 when students would jokingly ask the rhetorical “why,” prompted as they were by humour, angst, frustration, good judgment.
How often I was accused of cynicism! My retort, “Hardly – I’m a realist.” How often I was blamed for poisoning the well: “I can’t stop seeing the world this way, thanks to you!” My reply, “Show me where it’s different.” In all sincerity, I am ever willing to reconsider. Asking “why” is a general presence of mind, a demeanour, a sceptical worldview, healthily cynical… realistic.
A mite bit cynical? Sure, maybe, as in maybe for me. For the students, maybe just done with school for a while, especially by the end of Grade 12. And maybe a little more thoughtful by then, too, a little more disciplined. Whether they knew it yet or not, a little more adult than student striding across the graduation stage.
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