Why We Must Always Ask Why

Like many idealistic young teachers, my main goal when I started teaching over 20 years ago in a Catholic school in the Boston area was to instill in my students a healthy skepticism about what they were learning and why they were learning it; I surmised the best way to foster critical thinking skills was to teach them to ask the question “Why?” at every decisive juncture of their academic and personal life. At the time, this extended to the secular and religious training the students were going through, most significantly embodied in the daily recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” and the “Lord’s Prayer.”

As a newly returned Peace Corps Volunteer with an exaggerated sense of importance, I set out to practice what I intended to teach. This manifested in my immediate refusal to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and the “Lord’s Prayer,” and, to the school’s great credit, the administration supported my attempts to practically exercise the freedoms embodied in the First Amendment. However, after a few classes, more and more students began to notice and asked why I didn’t put my hand over my heart and repeat the pledge or make the sign of the cross and recite the prayers. In response, I simply asked the students if they understood what they were saying and posted on the board the precise words of the pledge. We all had a good laugh when many of us admitted that for some years we thought “indivisible” was “invisible” and the attendant impossibility that “one nation, invisible, with liberty and justice for all” could exist.

In the end, we concluded that many of us had no idea what the key words of the pledge meant, including “liberty,” “justice,” and “republic.” The lesson ended with me stating that I hoped students at least understood the words of the “Lord’s Prayer” and weren’t simply repeating them mindlessly. Over the next few lessons, we delved into the significance of the pledge, always focusing on the question why. Why are children compelled to stand every day for 12 years straight reciting words that they might not understand? Why was the pledge amended to include “Under God” in 1954, and why are those who refuse to recite the pledge for political or religious reasons often lambasted socially but defended legally

I’ve thought about that formative experience often over the last few years when other symbols have been introduced into the classroom, most notably those associated with LGBTQ+ education. This thinking took on greater resonance last month when two California school districts banned the flying of the Pride flag. In short, I wondered if I would take the same approach to the Pride flag that I took to the pledge and “Lord’s Prayer.” More importantly, I hoped I’d be able to explain to students that refusing to honor a symbol like the Pride flag had nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ community any more than my refusal to stand for the pledge or recite Catholic prayers had to do with a rejection of my nation or my faith. Rather, it had everything to do with asking why students are compelled to honor symbols and words that they might not understand. Alas, when such compulsion is strongly encouraged or mandated, schools align themselves with indoctrination rather than education. 

Since that time over 20 years ago in an open-minded Catholic school that supported students’ questioning, I’ve been fortunate enough to work and teach in Russia, China, and Turkey, countries where, unlike the subtlety of the U.S., the line between education and indoctrination is non-existent. In such countries the question why is not only socially dangerous but could end up landing you in jail (or worse). And although it hasn’t gotten that bad stateside, there are similarities between the way some social views are being introduced and taught to American students and the way that children in Russia, China, and Turkey are indoctrinated. Much revolves around a perceived sacred dogma that cannot be questioned. In Russia, that dogma includes the narrative that Putin stands heroically against the West in defense of Slavic traditions and values; in China, the Communist Party blares its Marxist propaganda through loudspeakers as students walk to class after lunch; and in Turkey, state media and education deemphasize the accomplishments of the nation’s founder, Ataturk, and extol the virtues of President Erdogan as the 100th anniversary of the republic’s founding approaches at the end of October.

Flags and dogma are essential aspects of propaganda in these nations. But the greatest weapon in these authoritarians’ arsenal is the fear they strike in those who, given more freedom, might ask why the flags and dogma cannot be questioned.

Unfortunately, it appears that such silencing tactics are being employed by some in U.S. education who’d prefer that students simply get in line and repeat Orwellian slogans like “Love is not a crime,” “Pride is for everyone,” “We’re here, We’re queer,” “Love is Love,” and “Trans rights are human rights” rather than ask why such slogans and what they represent should be part of any educational curriculum.

I’ve had numerous conversations over the years with both students and teachers who fear that if they were to ask that simple question, the forces of “soft totalitarianism” would come crashing down on them. It goes without saying that such self-censorship should disturb the souls of anybody who stands for the pursuit of Truth, the First Amendment and the quest to move our society forward by critically examining what we are taught and why we are taught it.

Just as educators have been protected when questioning nationalist indoctrination, we must also support teachers, parents, and students in their questioning of LGBTQ+ indoctrination. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing part of the vital skeptical tradition that has propelled our nation toward the lofty ideal of creating a more perfect union.

Consequently, starting a conversation centered on questioning why Pride flags and other LGBTQ+ initiatives are part of any school curriculum should be encouraged and supported.

Dana E. Abizaid is a journalist and teacher with over 20 years of experience in high school and university classrooms. Currently, he is a freelance contributor to The Daily Caller.

Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.

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