Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 6/7/2003 10:30 AM
Random Thought: Questers

Well, Susan and I are about to embark to San Francisco for two weeks of grandbaby spoiling time. Anyway, as I found myself doing my Gene Kelly act and walking in the rain, I started thinking about an exchange I had with a student that took me to my core. Maybe "embroiled" is a better description of this engage. Soon after the semester ended, she was on the internet "demanding" a grade change. While leading ignorance of the reasons for her low grade, she started pulling out all her guns to lay a guilt trip on me: I alone am keeping her from entering a professional program; I alone am the cause for the loss of her Hope Scholarship; I alone am going to keep her from returning to school for lack of funds. I alone am the cause for the strain on the relationship with her boyfriend. Gosh, you'd think I was also the sole cause for world hunger, natural catastrophes, world conflict, and global economic depression! Our e-mail conversation that went on for about two weeks had been a process of she demands, I ask questions about her performance, she keeps making accusations and demands without answering the questions, and I keep asking more specific questions in response to her accusations and demands. After a week of this, we had a series of short machine-gun burst exchanges.

In a fit of annoyance, she "screamed" at me, "GRRRRR!!!!! I AM SO EXASPERATED. YOU WON'T ANSWER ME!!!!"

"Yes, I am."

"No, you're not. All you do is ask me a lot of damn questions about why I did or didn't do this or that and why did I feel about this or that. How the hell do I know why. You want me to come up with the answers to my own questions?"


"If I had the answers, I wouldn't be asking you."

"Hadn't you already decided not to believe me before you first wrote to me? You have to ask the questions from someone whose answers you'll believe."

"And who might that someone be, smarty pants?"


"Me? I don't have any answers."

"Yes, you do! And, you're the only one whose answers you're going to believe. You have the answers, if you're truly honest first with yourself and then with me," I quietly answered with a tone of finality. "Now, when you want to stop shouting at me and start answering your questions yourself--honestly this time--write me again and I'll listen."

She answered and I listened. Over the next week, slowly, oh so slowly, painfully, agonizingly she reluctantly "opened up" to herself and to me. I found out stuff I didn't know about. She found stuff to which she finally admitted. We amicably agreed to resolve the issue in what I'll call a unique and creative way. And, I'll leave it at that.

This discussion with her has gotten me thinking about an insatiable and driving habit I have, my habit of questing, of asking questions. It has long history and aged roots embedded in the soil of my home.

My father was born in the first decade of the twentieth century, the son of an immigrant brush maker whose small store was on Houston Street in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. Technically, my father was first generation American born, but he still had a lot of the old world immigrant in him. Three of the seven children in his family--the only three--would go on to get an education. He and two of his brothers had gotten LLB's. Unfortunately, they had the misfortune of hanging up their shingles during the depression. He couldn't make it. Unlike his brothers, he had an alternative livelihood. He was lured into my mother's family antique business. However lucrative the business may have been, there he was treated--tolerated is a better word--as a brother-in-law, like a less than fully respected second son not destined for any inheritance of lands or title. Maybe worse. I think he lived with a deep sense of failure. We didn't talk of such personal matters.

Anyway, what we did talk about was questions, and it was always at the evening dinner table. After we had moved out to Rockville Center on Long Island in 1948 and until the declining family business finally collapsed around 1954 and my father had to work late into the night to make ends meet, our family had an evening ritual. Those were my formative years of 8-14. My father would commute home from New York City on the Long Island Railroad. We would wait his arrival and be called to the dinner table. As soon as we sat down to dinner, the ritual would begin.

Education was important to my father. My father had a lot of faults, the consequences of which I, as the second son, bore until a little over a decade ago. What I call his "golden hands" was not one of them, nor was what others would clinically call his "critical thinking skills." He was a master fixer-upper from whom I learned how to work with my hands and with tools. He combined this ability with a confident, curious, imaginative, vice-like, razor-sharp, penetrating, logical mind. If he was going to repair or build something, he always said something to effect: make the decision to do it, ask the questions about it, see the problems, solve them, and do it. It was an organic combination of knowing, thinking, doing, and feeling. Without hesitation he went--and me with him--into new experiences that opened new worlds: tearing down automobile engines and transmission, building stone patios, constructing new rooms, laying concrete, drawing electrical wire, repairing small applicances, painting and wallpapering and plastering, puttering and tinkering, planting a garden, making home movies, playing the organ, whatever.

He was an avid reader. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, LIFE, LOOK, POPULAR MECHANICS, POPULAR SCIENCE, COLLIER, NEWSWEEK, TIME, even READER'S DIGEST were strewn about the house like surrealistic clocks in a Dali painting. NEWSDAY, THE TIMES, and the HERALD TRIBUNE were on our door stoop each morning and afternoon. Our den had walls of bookshelves crammed with encyclopedias, dictionaries, magazine back issues, and books in all disciplines (my heap of comic books were confined to the kitchenette corner cabinet).

When we sat down by the dinner table, before anything was served, I, especially, would be asked about school. My younger sister was too young and my older brother was off somewhere. The eldest son followed a different set of rules. Anyway, my father wouldn't ask what I had learned that day. He would ask what question did I ask that day and why had I asked it. If I hadn't asked the teacher a question he would question me with a "why not? Did you understand everything?" If I answered that I had, I would get a "tell me all about it." When I invariably stumbled, he would pointedly say, "You should have asked a question." If I replied that I did not want to look stupid, that I was embarrassed to ask, and/or that I was afraid of what others thought about me, he would say over and over and over again, "You won't learn anything that lasts if you don't ask questions."

Once, in my defense, I told him that I didn't have to ask a question since I silently had solved the problem, fully and correctly answered the question, the teacher gave to the class. He came back, shot back is a better description of his response, with the explanation that all I had done was to solve the teacher's problem, answered her question, and gave her her answer. I had to learn to see the problem on my own when no one was around to point it out. And, I could only do that by asking my own questions about her question or her answer and come up with my own answer.

Of all the words, I most vividly remember from those schoolday evenings at the dinner table, the one that is branded on my soul, is "WHY." He would always admonish me with a "Why didn't you ask 'why?'" And so, at the dinner table the challenges would be made. The string of "why's" would be asked. The discussions would start. The arguments would rage. The voices would rise. Invariably, the paternal proclamation would ring throughout the house: "Get out the books." Dishes and glasses and tableware would be pushed out of the way. The tablecloth would be wrinkled back like an accordion. Opened encyclopedias and books and magazines and blank sheets of lined paper would be scattered about. Fingers would point. Pencils would scribble. Only after we had settled the issue--which always meant my father's way-- would we hear, "Now let's eat. Helen!" It was a family joke that at night we always had heated discussions and cold meals.

As I look back, my father's method was far closer to that of Socrates than what I call the present day question-and-answer "neo-socratic method." That was a magnifcent gift which I surely did not appreciate at the time and for a long, long time thereafter. Heck, I didn't even realize or acknowledge until a decade ago that he had helped me---sometimes to the annoyance of my teachers and friends-- become what I'll call a "quester." Asking questions and questioning answers--except his--became second nature to me. For me, problem perceiving--not merely problem solving--asking questions, being a quester, is not an activity. It is a way of seeing and feeling. It is both a head and a heart exercise. It's a sharpening and invigorating and moving way of living. It is a paying homage to curiosity and imagination and creativity. It is something that I cannot leave either at the edge of the campus or the classroom threshold. It is a living in my imagination and making it and inseparable part of my tangible world. It is something that causes me to move from mindlessness to mindfulness, from dull to keen, from casual to rigorous, from passing to rich, from missing to noticing, from slumber to awakening, from blaise to thrilling, from gloss to meaning, from superficial to essential; to go beyond mere "looking at" to being "aware of" and then onto "seeing." It is a something for constant "reimagining," whether I am in a book, in the garden, in a repair, in a meeting, in a discussion, in a classroom, in wherever and with whomever.

A Haiku master once said something to the effect: do not seek to follow in the the footsteps of others before you, seek what they sought, seek truth, honesty, and meaning. Questing, then, creates the opportunity and challenge to look at the same thing and the same person--the same reality--from a different angle and in a different context and with a different perspective. Questing is not for the timid. To practice questing, you figuratively have to leave home for unknown places. You have to break away from the crowd or the mob. You have to stand out and often stand there by yourself. It can be a fearful and challenging venture into the unknown. At the same time, it feels like a pilgrimage that refreshens and renews, that can be a thrilling journey which broadens horizons.

As I told this student, we learn most to understand what we have learned and what we need to learn by questioning. Lessons are where you learned to look with your own questioning eyes. We are not what we proclaim to know; we are what we proclaim we don't know, what we question, and from what and whom we are willing to learn.

As I told some people the other day, questing can drive me up a wall! Questing has the characteristics of quicksilver. First, it creates a mood of personal--and exciting--restlessness. Second, there is a constant need to feel something deeper than the surface glare and gloss. Stuff pours through my pores that I never imagined. I can't read anything without making marginal comments that are more often than not in the form of questions. It's like being unable to quiet the voices in my head and heart. It's brain swelling and heart swelling stuff. It creates what I call "organized chaos." I'm always packing and unpacking my bags, always changing, always on the move, always developing, always growing. And, I'm not sure I feel that the destination, if there is a destination, ever gets nearer. The truth is never reaching; it's always evolving. Things are always different from what they might be, as Henry James would say, and never what you wish or expect.

And yet..... Qusting is not an obstacle. It is a motivation with a payoff. It serves as an exhilarating on-your-toes antidote to the matte rigidity of certitude, that is, thinking that you already know it all. It demonstrates your ignorance for your own good. It is like being a constant wanderer in the desert, going where you're not sure you're going, probing to the edges of the unpredictable, renewing the passion for stepping into the unknown, confronting difficulties and dangers, and returning home with new understandings of themselves and of the world, cultivating new abilities to see and listen, talking or thinking the way to a new understanding, summoning the courage to articulate new visions. It develops a welcomed hunger for risk-taking and a willingness to seek out new ways to develop and change. I have found that unless I say goodbye to what I hold, unless I travel constantly to completely new territories and meet new people, I can expect atrophy, a long wearing away of myself, an eventual living extinction, and being reduced from living to mere existing.

Today especially, with information flowing at a whitewater pace, with change carrying us as a raging torrent, we should be more mindful that unchange is unnatural. Lifelong adaptation and adoption are critical. Learning, then, is mandatory. Unlearning, that critical process of cutting bait, of letting go of outdated ideas and ways, is a critical mindset to cultivate. Unlearning and learning means moving out of our comfort zone and trying out new behaviors. If we're not willing to take some risks, we're unlikely to grow. And, if we're not growing, our work itself is at risk. It's not a matter of tolerating risk; it's a matter of welcoming it. Each of us needs to develop a hunger for risk-taking and a willingness to seek out new ways to develop and change.

The Sufis say, asking good questions is half of learning. In that spirit, I ask one big question, especially of myself, each day.

In my closet, on a neat looking navy blue sweatshirt designed by the publisher of the first volume of collected Random Thoughts are printed my words: "Education boils down to acquiring the desire, confidence, and courage to question the answers." I believed it then. I affirm even more now that authentic individuality and true independence lies in the heart of a quester, and that the purpose of a teacher is to help students help instill in themselves the Euripidean spirit of becoming a "prudent skeptic."

Thanks Dad.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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