The best answers are often the unguarded ones, the ones that are not “prepared.” Those are the answers that ask new questions themselves. The other day at the end of class, I was fielding questions. One student raised his hand but pulled it down before I could get to him. I asked him, “Did you have a question?” He said he did, but he didn’t anymore. I asked if I’d answered his question while answering someone else’s. He said, “No, I answered it myself.”
I popped back with an unguarded comment — “Oh, then my job here is done.” Seeing the new question on his face, I explained that the whole purpose of teaching is to teach students to answer their own questions. Leaving it there, saying no more. Hopefully, it left a question hanging in the air for the class.
That comment was off the top of my head, sort of. Teaching students to find answers to their own questions is the whole point of a classroom — a difficult lesson to learn over the 20-plus years I’ve taught. When I started teaching, I thought the whole point was to stuff as much stuff as possible into their heads and test them relentlessly to make sure they remembered. I still do that, but now I structure the “stuff” so that it’s memorable without an examination, so that hopefully they’ll continue to engage with it throughout their lives.
After all, that’s the favor that was done for me, once I realized it. When I took the same exact class back in the day, someone asked the prof what the point of taking that class was. He replied, “So you’ll have some big ideas to bounce around while you’re waiting for the bus.” I never forgot it; I use the same answer now, changed slightly for changing times.
What has got me thinking today is what a “big idea” is. Big ideas usually come from small questions. Answering those small questions for oneself is the aim of an education. Realizing that those small questions reveal the biggest ideas is … well, I’m still working on that one.
A former high school teacher of mine asked me one of those “big idea” questions when I bumped into her after I’d graduated many years ago. After catching up a little, she blindsided me with “Are you happy?” Since the question was unexpected, the answer was unguarded: “Yes, but I’m not content.” Wow! Have I ever turned that answer over and over in my head since! I’ve wondered about it as I was “waiting for the bus.” I’ve flipped it over and decided that I actually was “content” but not “happy,” then gone back to I’m “happy” but not “content.” I’ve gotten down now to “what is ‘content’ and what is ‘happy’?”
So, I’ve read about it. It’s surprising how many books on “happiness” there are out there, some by comedians, some by journalists, some by psychologists, the most interesting by philosophers. So many how-to articles about how to be happy are published that I’ve lost track of how many I’ve read. Reading what other people think happiness is has taught me a lot about what happiness isn’t. Sometimes, a good answer of what something is can be found by defining what it isn’t.
That’s along about the time when a friend asked me another question that somewhat settled matters for me. Following the “happiness" trend, he asked me if I was happy. I said yes, but he badgered a little: “Are you TRULY happy?” The unguarded answer: “I’m only TRULY happy in the classroom.” That one shocked him a little. He didn’t really know what I meant; I suppose he thought that I was NOT happy most of the time, miserable for most of the day. He didn’t know what I meant probably because I didn’t really know what I meant. Then.
Now, I’ve realized what I meant. Yes, I am happy. I am TRULY happy. I am ALWAYS “in the classroom” — not always where I’m teaching, but also where I’m being taught. I’m 50 now, and I’m just now starting to learn not only which questions to ask, but also how to answer them. I certainly don’t have the answers, but asking the questions IS the answer. By the way, I look forward to reading a book I just bought by Jonathan Rauch, "The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50."
I don’t know what Rauch will have to say, but this question of happiness itself goes way back. After all, the day I was fielding questions in the classroom, we had just finished discussing ancient Greek philosophy. A large part of understanding ancient Greek philosophy, I’ve found, is realizing that ancient Greek philosophers are largely starting with simple questions.
Now that it’s all boiled down to “pot likker,” I’m good. After all, I’ve got cornbread.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.