What Was Your Question?
Take a look at this painting:
It probably looks familiar. It’s titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, and shows up in any number of history textbooks.
It’s also pretty easy to criticize. First and foremost, why the heck is the General standing up in such a flimsy boat? If it’s the middle of the night, why is the sun coming up (or going down)? Why don’t the people in the boat look like they’re soldiers or at least colleagues? What’s up with the chunks of ice? And did they really put wild horses into tiny rowboats to get them across rivers?
Fair enough, except that those are the wrong questions – or at least… they’re inadequate, if the painting is to be understood.
For example, wondering why the General is standing sets aside the rather glaring reality that this isn’t a photograph or a historical film, it’s a painting. A better question might be why the artist chose to paint the future Father of our Country standing up, and in such a dramatic posture.
Why would the artist incorporate a sunrise (I assure you there are no sundowns where the American Revolution was concerned) in this scene? What statements might he be trying to make through the types of people he's placed in the boat and their attire?
What message or point was the artist trying to make? It must have taken a long time to paint – surely he had some goal in mind.
Suddenly we have something pretty useful – entry points to understanding the message and value system behind this painting and the circumstances in which it was created. Our paradigm shifts from the frustrating analysis of bad history to the unfolding possibilities of good art. Instead of merely explaining away misinformation, we now have a dozen different directions we could take to learn more or speculate more deeply.
As a bonus, many of those questions lead to some pretty good history. (In case you were worried.)
We just needed to ask different questions.
It happens with stuff that looks far more concrete as well:
Who knew bicycling was so dangerous? How do you get hurt playing golf? What changed between 1991 and 1998 to make volleyball so much safer?
Nothing wrong with any of those questions, but I respectfully suggest a little effort might produce even more helpful queries:
What were the total numbers of people in the stipulated age range participating in these activities during these years? Why 1991 and 1998 specifically? If this is ‘Figure 1’, what’s in ‘Figure 2’? What were the severities of the most common injuries associated with each sport?
And always always always…
What message or point were the creators of this graphic trying to make?
That’s the thing about statistics, or paintings, or analogies, or talking points, or document excerpts, or laws – even when they’re ‘true’ (and they’re not always), they almost always reflect a point-of-view or purpose.
They exist. Therefore, someone brought them into existence. Often that someone made a plethora of choices along the way to do so – what to include, what to ignore, what to highlight, what to dismiss, how to frame or phrase or color or express, for clarity or obscurity.
What truth to tell.
A little healthy skepticism in the form of asking the right questions can also act as a filter for the loaded language and passionate diatribes of others, whether legislators or cult leaders. Nothing circumvents clear thinking like a sense of urgency or emergency.
While Captain Kirk was known for his emotional leadership and a daring, follow-your-gut style, a generation later Captain Picard managed to be a bad-ass without often taking the bait when drama was being flung about.
As it turns out, Captain Maxwell had some valid concerns – those Cardassians were up to something. Stay tuned for Kim & Chloe Take the Gamma Quadrant.
But his solutions were flawed, largely because he wasn’t asking the right questions. His course of action was both self-destructive and counterproductive because he didn’t pause to analyze his assumptions.
Much of our current efforts to ‘reform education’ are based on a similar lack of analysis. Some are simply malicious, but I wonder if often they’re just not asking the right questions.
I respectfully suggest a few things we should be asking before we break Starfleet Protocol, sell our bicycle, or criticize art:
When we speak of ‘reform’, what do we mean? Do we mean to literally 're-create' the entire system, or is it more like reformatting a hard drive? Is it trying to make things better for individuals, like the ‘reform movements’ of the past, or crack down on them, like when ‘bad kids’ were sent to ‘reform school’?
Do we mean ‘raise certain test scores’? ‘Produce happier children?’ ‘Graduate students better prepared for college or to hold real jobs?’
What are our goals, exactly?
In California and elsewhere, teacher tenure laws are being attacked and overturned because tenure protects ‘bad teachers’ and kids deserve ‘good teachers.’ Fair enough.
Why did teacher tenure exist in the first place? Is being ineffective in the classroom the most common reason teachers are punished or fired? Are kids not doing well primarily because they’re ‘trapped’ with these inadequate teachers? Where are the better teachers who we’d prefer take these jobs? Does knowing they can be fired at will make them better? If so, better at what?
What exactly are these students not doing well? Is it test scores, or one of those other things asked above?
In Oklahoma and many other states, legislators are tying teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. OK, let’s run with that.
What will we do with the ‘bad’ teachers? Are they going to be ‘reprogrammed’? Re-educated? By who? Why didn’t we have the people with the good ideas train them the first time?
Are these teachers stupid, or just not trying hard enough?
Given the number of unfilled positions and the state’s determination to continue cutting taxes, what’s the plan when we’ve fired all of the ‘bad teachers’?
If teachers are accountable for how their students perform, should the same be true of building principals? District superintendents?
What about state legislators?
If these tests are so important, why aren’t more adult professionals taking them? Did they have an inadequate public school education, and that’s why they’re trying so hard to fix it now? If so, should we should make sure they get a better one before letting them do more damage? Isn’t that the whole premise of accountability?
If they DID get a good education, why won’t they take these same tests to demonstrate what a reasonable expectation it is? How important those things are to know, even years later?
No, seriously – why? Are they worried there’s not actually much correlation between their scores and their current credibility? Are they worried maybe there is?
What questions are THEY asking about public education? What's their goal or purpose in what they say and do?
Obviously I have some ideas regarding possible answers to some of these, but others I really don’t. I’m also sure I’m not asking all the right questions myself – that’s the problem with being limited to our own paradigms. That’s why we should always be open to re-examining our assumptions – and to better questions.
What else should we be asking? I welcome your contributions below.