The Right to Question

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

It was in 1984. University students across Morocco were on strike, so it must have been some time in February. Teachers were required to put in an appearance and spend some time in empty rooms, normally filled with 80 or more students. Looking busy was essential.

The Chair of the English Department asked to speak with the teachers responsible for teaching first and second year students grammar, composition, and comprehension. He was a Moroccan, recently returned with a Doctorate in Linguistics from a school in the US. He was the third Chair in five years, and had taken charge of the upper level students, mostly 4th years who would be leaving for teaching posts in the spring.

The man had quirks, to be sure. He was insecure and had reason to be. His wife, an American teacher in the department, helped fascilitate all meetings. Feuds with faculty members, both Moroccan and native English speakers, became common. Staff had left abruptly just three months after he had assumed the Chair. Those who had to stay because a spouse worked in another department, were desperately unhappy. Rumor had it that soon the only jobs to be available for expatriate English speakers would be in the language lab, where accent and cadence were important.

I was part of a group of four women who had been working together for nearly five years, teaching the basics to first and second year students. Two of us were French who had spent much of their lives in England. One was Welsh, and I was American. Although grammar, composition, and comprehension were billed as separate classes, we taught them as interrelated. We prepared all our lessons together, using the same texts, many of them from Time, Newsweek, or English papers, and teaching with a Chomskyan view of language. We stressed the importance of asking questions, both for clarification and to delve more deeply into the nuances of English as a language.

This all proved to be a problem for the Chair. He liked Chomsky well enough from a linguistic point of view and when handed out via lecture, but was entirely against this business of encouraging students to ask questions. They expected answers and became surly when they did not get them. They relied on logic to take the place of dogma and would actually argue their point of view. He thought a more prescriptive strategy better suited to students just starting out at university, a strategy that relied more on memorization and acceptance.

He outlined his ideas in our meeting. “No,” said the group leader.

“Do you deny that you teach them to ask questions?”

“Of course we teach them to ask questions.”

“But surely you see this is wrong?” The Chair seemed shocked.

No one, it seemed, disagreed with the facts. Early teaching of question asking techniques resulted in students continuing to ask questions as they got older. The problem was that one side saw this as a good thing, and the other saw it as bad. It smacked of religious fervor on both sides. It was surprising, to me, that he found questions evil. I believe the Chair was equally surprised.

I am sure it was not the first time I encountered this dichotomy of thought. Whether my Dad would go to Hell for having smoked (Toby Tobacco in Sunday School said yes!), or questioning God’s motivation in sending one or another band of barbarians after His Israelites (Reverend Welch said questioning God was “just not done!”) were two of my early experiences. The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War were keystones of my youth and both had a religious aspect to them. This hatred of questioning was, however, the first time I had seen such tempers rise in a strictly secular circumstance. Passions burn hot when individuals, or groups, feel threatened in either their lack of knowledge or way of life. Those feelings can be aroused in any arena.

While the Computer, Burger, and Cola Wars are half joke, half serious, I am surprised (dismayed? astounded?) these days by authentic passion surrounding ideas that I had thought long since put to bed, like racism, equality, gender, unalienable rights.

About Susacadia

I am a writer, fiber artist, and occasional raconteur. I've been around the block a time or two, but stuck to any career I ever had for at least 10 years. They have all morphed logically from one to another. But under it all I have eternally been a teacher and a learner.
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One Response to The Right to Question

  1. marian connor says:

    Having attended a highschool closely related to the University of Massachusetts, School of Education, we were, as students, faced with the same dilemma. With most teachers we were encouraged to question the status quo, with other, literally old school teachers, we were subject to redicule, rebuke and suspension if we refused to acquiesce, we were faced with suspension. Isn’t learning knowing enough to ask a question?

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