The Other I

May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

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8 Comments »

  1. That doesn’t sound like the catechism we had (the Baltimore?). Different answers too (why does that strike me as funny?) We were still memorizing catechism answers in (Jesuit) high school. Only now they included the consequences of self-abuse (five! count them. five!). The fifth was: sometimes sudden death.

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    Comment by pianomusicman — May 16, 2013 @ 1:13 am | Reply

    • Well, as my husband said when I told him that self-abuse could cause suddent death: what a way to go! Obviously, the same consequences don’t apply to pedophilia.

      Seriously, it still astonishes me to realize how incredibly neurotic the RCC is about sex. And it’s seriously damaging too. Until recently, do you know it used to be a sin to even take pleasure in sex?

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      Comment by theotheri — May 16, 2013 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

  2. It is ok learning the questions – but indoctrinating the young with “answers” is totally wrong. Wrong whether it be in rural England or rural North Korea.

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    Comment by lairdglencairn — May 16, 2013 @ 7:45 am | Reply

  3. I suppose, on a more serious note, the questions asked are more important than the answers given. The questions set the limits of possible discussion. An atheist, e.g., would not want to see the question “Who made the world” start the ball rolling for any pedagogical discussion. It assumes a “Who.” Chomsky (here I go again with Chomsky) says the best way to control thought is to allow a full and free range of discussion within strictly defined limits. Which reminds me of Philip Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews” in which the yeshiva teacher allows one hour a week for “free discussion,” meaning the students could talk about any Jewish topic they wanted to.

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    Comment by pianomusicman — May 16, 2013 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

    • Oh good point! Even the questions we ask already suppose a world view.

      And don’t apology for quoting Chomsky. Beginning when I was a graduate student, he has, again and again, changed some of my most fundamental assumptions that I had not even thought were up for discussion.

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      Comment by theotheri — May 16, 2013 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  4. Ah yes, but… can we at least say that in an exam context answering the question (however creatively you like) really is the way forward? I feel so sorry for markers with all the pages and pages of irrelevance that students torture them with, year on year 😉

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    Comment by sanstorm — May 17, 2013 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

    • I must admit that my sympathy for the markers isn’t very deep. But maybe it’s because I spent so many years being one of them. But I do agree that addressing the question asked is a rather essential point for successful-takers.

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      Comment by theotheri — May 17, 2013 @ 3:32 pm | Reply


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