Monday, November 15, 2010

H.G. Wells, Full House, and My Strange Father

Early on in my education my father said something to me that shaped how I learned. He said, “You don’t have to know everything. You just need to know how to find the information you need, that’s why they have books. But it is not enough to know what’s in the books you have to know how to use what they say. Once you understand why something happens or why a person does something then you will be able to use that information in your life.”

Of course like every child my preferred way of gathering information was to ask questions, but my father had sadistic habit of answering my questions with a question. And when I would object, my father would respond with, “So what’s wrong with a question?” or hand me a book.

Once I asked a question about a television show, and he handed me H.G. Wells Outline of History. He told me to ask again when I finished reading the 500 page tome. I was twelve.
And like every child, I let him see me reading it a few times, skipped over the boring parts, and asked again. (The part over the Mongol warriors was pretty cool though.) He answered my question by asking me why the great men in history were considered to be so great. I replied because they won. He agreed and said that was just it, they won. If they had lost they would be discounted as renegades or rebels, but it did not mean that they were always the best men. He asked me what would motivate these men to take such risks, to fight these great fights? He went on to answer his own question that time, which I learned he would often do if I stayed quiet long enough.

I learned a lot from my father, how to look at people and ask these sorts of questions. Why do people do what they do? Answer: because of what they believed. What caused people to take certain courses of action? Answer: because of their environment and heredity. What shaped their environment? What formed their beliefs? Why were they allowed to prevail were better men had failed? How did this apply to my life, what I believe, what I think and ultimately what I will do?

My education was not endless barrage of facts that needed to be memorized. I was taught how to learn, and is something that I am for which I am immensely grateful. It is a skill not often taught to us in our culture. It meant my father spent much more time telling me where to look for answers he could have rattled off without a second thought. It meant that he would have to entertain prolonged conversations with a child when he could have been watching the ball game.

At times I considered his techniques rather heartless. After all I only wanted to know why I could not watch a sitcom with a laugh track, and I got a college history book shoved in my lap. I know to many of you it seems like an odd way to answer a question, and maybe it is, but thanks to Full House I now know that Mongol warriors were amazing horse men and use human skulls as dinnerware. I also know that I have a responsibility to teach myself, to learn from the people who have lived before me, and not to repeat their mistakes.

Unfortunately, not everyone had a father as committed to their children’s education as I did. And our society has taught us that simply regurgitating facts is a close enough to pass for an education. On the whole, our culture has taught us that we should not ask questions or if we do, keep them simple. As a consequence we often fail to grasp the impact that our world and our history has on our lives. We don’t’ examine how our perceptions are shaped by the nuances, or how we have the power to change our perception through educating ourselves.

And it is okay if we need to dig deeper to gain understanding. Dad finally had to tell me why I could not watch TV with laugh tracks. He did not want anyone to tell me what is funny. He did not want me to grow to think that serious issues were something to laugh at just because of societal dictates. He wanted me to think and form my own opinion based on something a little more authoritative than a sitcom.

Our world is filled with people who are willing to tell us what is and is not important, how to interpret events, and what our values should be. It is our job, especially as Christians, to know our history and know the heroes of our past so that our perceptions are shaped by the light of God’s word and not the latest fads or even by time honored traditions. We have a responsibility to see past the surface and understand what each voice is truly trying to say.

Finally, we need to be okay with seeking out the information. We were given a great source, one that you probably already own – It’s called the Bible, and it is not enough to simply read it. We should read in the purpose of understanding why things happened as they did, why he did what he did, and maybe we will catch a glimmer of how this wonderful history plays out in our lives.