Western Smarts: Why Asking “Why?” is Important

(September 2016)

I had a conversation with a young friend of mine that was preparing to go to college. From her intonations I gathered that she was everything but excited for college. Without even asking, she offered her thought and said, “As an African kid, what choice do you have?” I laughed hysterically because it was funny how she said it. In actuality though, it is true. College is the Israelite journey to the Promised Land of an African family. Without it you’ve really disgraced the family and even if you do go to college, just not any ole’ college will do. Attaining the best of the best is why any African emigrates to foreign territories.

The question is “Why?”. Why do I have to go to college? Why do I have to major in this? Why should I pursue something that seems only my parents think is good for me? Why can’t I just be a dancer, singer, etc? “Why?” The question is not one familiar to most African children. For African children raised in Africa, that question rarely ever crosses their mind, if at all it does. For African children raised in America, with traditional African parents, it is a common question that is met with a fierce admonition to stop asking that question. For some children the question is answered with punishment, or a command to never ask “why?” again. It only takes so much scolding for a wise child to realize in order to save their skin (literally), they better stop asking questions and just do what they are told.

I never saw a problem with this until I went to law school. I found that the journey to graduating from law school successfully was one riddled with uncertainties about myself and my capabilities. Law school, and most other professional and graduate studies, I think, require the student to think outside the box. In law school my professors did not simply take our answers and move on to other topics. They also did not let students take the professor’s answers and run with it. There was an expectation that follow up questions would be asked and answered.

This was a strange concept to me. I sat in class and watched as my classmates would challenge the professor’s conclusions. The thing though is that they were not challenging at all; they were simply asking questions. I thought it was rude. I couldn’t formulate questions of my own. I didn’t understand why so many questions were being asked. I would just take notes once our professor had given us the answer and drop my pen expecting that we have exhausted all possibilities only to discover that we were far from done and there was more to write. I was nervous and terrified that I would be called on because I was not willing to engage in such a back and forth conversation. I recognized that I was unable to do so. I did not know where the fear came from and why I could not shake it.

At about the same time I started law school, my longtime friend began working for Right Questions Institute. I hadn’t the slightest idea what that organization was about. I pondered on the name of the organization and secretly followed my friend’s organization trying to learn about their mission. In retrospect I should have just asked, but maybe I was putting my research skills to work.  🙂
She posted something one day and explained that giving a child the answer to their questions is not nearly as impactful as having the child arrive at the correct answer by asking the right questions. I gathered that the organization’s goal was to build an inquisitiveness in students that led to them wanting to learn. It dawned on me that this was the exact problem I was facing.

I had grown up being inhibited from asking “why” and suddenly I was expected to excel in a professional program where asking questions is the hallmark of the learning process. I was so used to seeing the authority figure in my life as the one having the final correct answer that I was unable to think that perhaps there is another answer. I was used to not asking questions to the point that I did not see the value of questioning certain things. I had to fight against the urge to take everything my professors said as final. I had to rethink what answers are and realized that in law there is no, “what is THE right answer”, but rather, “what is A right answer”. I had to retrain myself to ask questions.

I spoke to two of my Nigerian friends about this. I told them about how I thought the stern upbringing of African children may sometimes inhibit our success in the future. I can understand that some think that’s complete hob wash, but that was my experience. I was able to overcome because of introspection. One friend was kind enough to hear me out. Her experience in graduate school was similar to mine. She mentioned how she too sat in class and wondered where her classmates were getting their questions from. My other friend recognized this dilemma but said that in the long run it is a benefit to us when we enter the workforce. He stated supervisors do not want to hear questions after they have given directions or orders. He said in the workforce they just want the work done.

I agreed with him. I thought it was very interesting how something so small could be received differently in three different realms. It’s sort of like code switching. In the home asking questions are frowned upon, but the child that is dissuaded from asking questions is expected to thrive excellently in an environment that fosters and encourages the very thing they were not allowed to do for the past 18+ years. And then once this now adult person enters the workforce, they are once again expected to be as a child and follow instructions without questioning things. Does any of this even make sense? Shouldn’t one stage prepare a person for the next? Shouldn’t the inquisitive Petri dish of higher education prepare adults to be better professionals?

What is my point? It just seems that all of this should come full circle for the benefit of the student and for the benefit of society. Africans want their children to attend college because they believe that having a college education will provide the platform for a better life for their children and thus a better life for them either because the child will be better equipped to care for them or because they will not have to care for themselves and their child. Encouraging children to attain great success in college does not only occur by forcing them to see the benefit of it. Encouraging children can also take the form of helping them form intelligent questions. Africans fear the “why” because they feel like their authority is being challenged or perhaps they feel they may not have the answer for the child. But if Africans expect their children to do great in higher education, it starts from the younger years by allowing them to explore those questions and working with the child to arrive at the right answer, or in some cases a right answer. Africans see “why” as a threat — a fire about to be wild and untamable. But if we can see “why” as a containable campfire that is handled with care it can be used to give light, give warmth, and create other beautiful things…like s’mores.  🙂

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4 thoughts on “Western Smarts: Why Asking “Why?” is Important

  1. Loved this. Another great piece.

    I ask why but it always got me in trouble. I don’t think I ever stopped asking but now it’s different. I ask why am I in my current role? Why did I choose this career path? In different phase of ones life, must learn to ask why to see how to fully enjoy the moment.

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    1. I think those are all very good questions to ask, especially as we progress in life and to find out if we are truly living a fulfilled life. Introspection can be a good thing. 😉 Thanks for reading and sharing your views!

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  2. I nice piece of write up, ‘WHY’ you don’t get that too much in an African setting at all, it is seen as challenging status quo, although it is protects an hierarchy pyramid for authority and black cultures, I think a good question would be to what extent does the ‘WHY’ should not be tolerated. it is a double edge sword I think.

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    1. Perhaps it requires a change of perspective. Something Africans are already apprehensive about but nevertheless necessary to thrive in a different society. There is a way a question can be asked to either show curiosity or to challenge. It’s probably best we learn when it is one or the other. Just a thought.

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