Children are information sponges. They spend their days being observant, listening intently and perhaps most importantly, asking questions. Kids are eager to know more, and they are not afraid to ask the challenging questions. Unfortunately, it seems that at some point, probably sometime during the late adolescent years, many lose their desire to learn. Participating in class becomes a dreaded task, and some choose not to pursue post-secondary education at all. I think that in my early college years, I fell victim to the trend. I lost interest in my major classes, was bored with group projects, and lacked the motivation to actively ask questions. In the last two years, however, something has changed. I have rediscovered my innate curiosity, and I have found a way to think like a kid again.
It is probably safe to say that one of the most frequent questions that kids ask is “why?” Think about it. How many times have you been around children and quickly realized that they constantly ask “why?” For kids, everyday life experiences cultivate curiosity. Why do I have to go to school? Why is it snowing? Why is she crying? The list goes on. When we’re young, our “why?” questions tend to be simplistic and they often have an easy answer. As we mature, however, our “why?” questions become deeper and more meaningful. As we mature, our “why?” questions lead to discovery, understanding, and a desire to take action.
During my last semester of college, I took a class that I like to call “Self-Discovery 101.” It was a capstone leadership course, for graduating seniors only, that focused heavily on reflection, vulnerability, authenticity and needless to say, self-discovery. While my professor was a well-established and respected faculty member, she taught the course from the perspective of a kid. She constantly asked “why?” and her doing so led to the most incredible educational experience I have had thus far. When she asked me “why?” it challenged me to think. Trying to figure out why challenged me to look beyond the surface, gaze through a different lens, and dig deep for the root causes of the issues I was dealing with. Asking “why?” is how we find understanding, which ultimately helps us when we decide to take action. While I am not technically an official social justice educator – or at least not yet – I can confidently say that the most important question we can ask in our work is “why?” and if we remember to think more like kids, we will do this.
I recently finished my first semester of graduate school, and I was lucky enough to take a course called Multiculturalism for Social Justice in Higher Education. Like any other higher education graduate student, I had lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of dialogue. Looking back on my experience in this class, though, the most impactful thing that happened all semester was being asked to think about, “why?” It is easy for class dialogue to quickly lose its strength, but when a professor – or a student – challenges others by asking “why?,” minds continue to explore the roots of the deeply embedded issues that we face. This exploration leads to understanding, and a desire to pursue further investigation. After Dr. Vijay Pendakur was a guest lecturer in my class, I reached out, requesting an opportunity to chat.
Vijay and I hung out in Lincoln Park one morning, exchanging snippets of our life stories and relating on many levels. As I reflected on our meeting, I quickly realized that almost all he did was ask me, “why?” While my response to his question was almost always, “I don’t know,” it always got me thinking, and here I am three months later, still processing his unfailing question. I told Vijay all about what I’ve coined my “Racial Identity Crisis.” I explained that identifying as Latina and Mexican American is hard when I do not feel that my skin is “dark enough,” or when I remember that I am not fluent in Spanish, or when people ask me what generation I am. Vijay thought like a kid. He asked me “why?” When I responded by saying that I felt like it was necessary to have a very dark complexion in order to be recognized as Latina and Mexican, he said, “why?” When I said that I think it is because society makes me feel that way, he said, “why?” By the end of our conversation, my head was exploding with both deep understanding and many more questions. You see, each time that we ask “why?” we allow ourselves and others an opportunity to dig deeper into the real questions that we are asking. This is absolutely necessary if we want to be successful in educating others about issues of social justice.
Our students need to be challenged. They need to be pushed. Social justice issues are deeply rooted in who we are, as individuals and as a society, and we must ask why! Thinking like a kid, embracing curiosity, and constantly asking “why?” is one of the only ways that we can guarantee our continued development in social justice education. We need to ask this question more frequently, and we need to be okay with the fact that oftentimes it is a very difficult question to answer. I personally believe that the most difficult questions tend to provide the most fulfilling answers.
And once we figure out the answers…well, then we must ask, “What can we do?”
Andrea is a first year master’s student in the Higher Education program at Loyola University Chicago, and she works as an Assistant Resident Director in the Department of Residence Life. She received her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration – Marketing from The Ohio State University. She is passionate about student leadership development, access and retention in higher education, college student identity development, and all things social justice. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, or reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.