We have some funny trends in our media – books, films, TV shows, and so on; these trends are, in a way, a self-perpetuating culture of ‘expectations,’ clichés and tropes that are used because they’ve been overused, and so we begin to think they’re correct. Many of them get addressed – the affect of gunshots, the idea that using a defibrillator on a ‘flat-lined’ patient will do a damn thing, the repeatedly-disproven canard that torture will produce dependable info – but there’s one that I’ve seen very often that I’ve also never seen rebutted, and it sorely needs it. I was reminded of this by Terry Pratchett, who was pretty good about catching silly clichés but actually uses this one too often. In short, it’s the wise (generally old) mentor that never answers, “Why?”
You’ve seen it. Mr Miyagi never telling Daniel why he has to paint the house in an awkward manner. Obi Wan Kenobi being cryptic. Countless characters saying, “Never touch the red button,” or whatever. The message is, if it’s important information, you should never have to explain what it is or why it’s important. Never question wisdom – just obey blindly.
Bringing it to attention like this makes us recognize that it’s a bad practice, and obviously a bad practice, for numerous reasons. Sure, sometimes it’s a plot device – the one told to simply obey, doesn’t, and learns the hard way that they should’ve, which in and of itself is a stupid lesson too.
Let’s start with, refusing to answer isn’t reassuring to anyone, kids or adults. You know who quickly figures out that we don’t answer because we probably don’t actually have a good answer? Damn near everyone. We’re inviting them to use their imagination, and chances are what they come up with isn’t the slightest bit accurate. Will they imagine that we’re hiding something interesting? Will they imagine that we’re just too stupid to know? Will their curiosity provoke them into trying to find out, or trying to prove us wrong? (Again, plot device, which is only useful in stories, not real life.) Or will they simply assume that there is no good reason, and ignore our advice? None of these are useful. And seriously, what kind of idiot would bet on their student learning their lesson by disobeying, especially with any kind of serious consequences in the mix?
Not to mention that blind obedience is an incredibly bad practice. Sure, we want people to obey us, because we’re smart – but we’re also teaching them to obey everyone, or everyone who seems to have some form of authority, and it takes no effort to produce examples that no one should be trusting. Blind faith, and even trust, are really bad traits. We might have trust in something because it’s shown to be dependable, which works pretty often, but it can easily be misplaced – think of the person who routinely speeds through a school zone because of their experience with a lack of police, or no kids running into the road. Hell, around here there’s a vicious trend of people blindly stepping out from a storefront into a parking lot, because they trust all drivers to be paying attention. You know, just like they themselves are…
We all know examples of people who really want blind obedience too, because it’s easy to manipulate others when they possess this – you’re on an atheist blog, I’ll let you do the math here, but it occurs in much broader areas than that, too. Why would we encourage this?
Most especially, if we have someone who’s asking why, who’s actively seeking information or a better understanding of a subject, we should be rewarding that. These are the people who learn, who have active minds that are trying to grasp things better. If nothing else, it proves that they’re paying attention. But by all means, we should never cut off the quest for more knowledge. The smartest people I’ve known are/were all polymaths whose curiosity led them down diverse paths that nevertheless gave them a better grasp of things overall, and the differing perspectives were nearly always beneficial. Learning something by rote, by merely repeating what we’ve been told, is only good for continuing to repeat – not for advancing. To advance, we have to wonder why.
Additionally, by engaging with someone asking questions, we have the opportunity to discover that there are misconceptions or misunderstandings lying beneath the knowledge that they have, that we might never have stumbled upon by being terse or dismissive. We also have the ability to discover that our own explanations or instructions were lacking in some manner, perhaps because we assumed a certain level of knowledge, or simply because we skipped over something crucial. I always encourage my students to ask questions for just this reason, but also because there’s a high probability that they’re not the only ones who have the same question. Their lack of hesitation to throw out questions is helpful to those within earshot who have greater difficulty with this, too shy to speak up, often thinking that it’s their fault that they fail to understand. We should never try to teach someone to keep their mouth shut.
Answer the questions. Give the reasons. Provide the explanations. If absolutely nothing else, it establishes that we really do know what we’re talking about, but most times it’s far more useful than that. And remember that anyone who doesn’t, probably isn’t very wise in the first place – they certainly don’t want others to be.