Considering the new SAT, education seems incredibly backward: the idea that answering test questions should constitute learning. What if education meant that kids pose the questions and then spend a week or a month or half a year answering them? It’s a fantasy, I know.
On the eighth day of Passover, I crunched my way through the last piece of whole-wheat matzah, bread of Biblical and digestive affliction. That night, we would officially break our week of leaven-free meals with tuna melts on chewy, yeasty New York bagels.
But there’s one part of Passover that I felt reluctant to leave behind.
I grew up in a family that, for all its gregarious chatter, all its 18-minute-long attenuated goodbyes, made some topics emphatically off-limits. We were cultural Jews who never spoke of God, descendants of Eastern Europe who did not discuss the Holocaust. If dinner conversation swerved into the realm of bodily functions, terminal disease or political controversy, my father left the table. As a child, I knew that certain questions (How did my father’s father die? Who was the crazy-looking woman in that picture?), posed to my bubies or my aunts, would elicit a slight shudder and a weary, “Oy. Better don’t ask.”
I didn’t. And my family reciprocated. For several years in my early 20s, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, and returned home for Thanksgiving and Passover, the family’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prefigured Bill Clinton and the U.S. military. No one dared venture a question about boyfriends or blind dates or even gender-vague “special someones.”
And when I finally confided to my parents that I loved women, they begged me — for that first shocked, rocky year, anyway — not to tell anyone else in the family. No matter; they’d all figured it out on their own. Even 92-year-old Pop-pop eventually joked to my partner and me, when he found us playing Scrabble late on a Saturday night, “Well, I knew you wouldn’t be out looking for husbands!”
This Passover, it was the questions — the ones we ask, the ones we shirk — that loomed large. I spent the weekend before the holiday at a farm in central Pennsylvania with my partner, Elissa, our 13-year-old daughter and one of her best friends. On the way, Elissa proposed a game: Every day, each of us would ask one question, and we’d all have to answer. Not factual, show-offy questions about the capital of Uruguay or how many half-teaspoons in a gallon, but reflective, thought-provoking queries.
It wasn’t hard to get the hang of it: What’s your favorite summertime food and your favorite wintertime food? What’s something you’re proud of? When was the last time you really laughed?
Our questions, like a magician’s knotted handkerchiefs, yielded a chain of new questions. Describe something thrilling you did in the last year prompted us to talk about what made an experience thrilling: Did it require risk-taking action, or could something be thrilling to witness, like a riveting play or a tree with flamingo-pink buds flung open?
On the final day of our farm sojourn, my daughter asked, If you had a year and unlimited funds to go somewhere, learn about something and then write about it, where would you go and what would you study? I couldn’t have guessed that Elissa would explore different cultures’ traditions of weaving, or that my daughter’s friend was fascinated by bloodlines and lineage. I said I’d go to a community that was shattered by natural disaster or violence and spend a year learning how people cope with loss and change. Our daily questions became a kind of psychic exfoliation, a peeling-away toward the nub of who we are.
What’s something you were scared to do, but did anyway? If you could live at any time in history, when would you live, and why? I thought about the power of questions to reveal, to dislodge. I thought about that again when we returned from the farm, just in time for Passover. As a kid, I used to page through the Haggadah with sweaty fingers, awaiting my turn to ask the Four Questions in Hebrew, the faces of cousins and grandparents beaming hotly toward me.
Learning begins with wonder
I was an adult before I realized that that portion of the Seder was never meant to be a performance. Instead, those questions are pathways, conversation-starters, traditionally asked by the youngest child to remind us that curiosity is natural and essential and should not be squelched. To remind us that learning begins with wonder.
If my relatives whispered, “Don’t ask,” the Seder commands us to do the opposite. This year, on the second night, we added other questions to the usual four: Which plague would you least like to experience, and why? What would a messianic age look like? If you had to leave home in a hurry, what would you take with you?
Those questions swirled together with everything I’ve been reading lately about the soon-to-be-revamped SAT test, which will have fewer items about obscure vocabulary words and more passages aimed to test students’ critical thinking skills. I actually tried some sample questions that were published in the newspaper; they involved discerning the correct meaning of the word “intense” (“concentrated” in the given context) and using algebra to convert the price of rupees to U.S. dollars.
For one gleaming moment, it all seemed incredibly backward: the idea that teachers and test-makers ask questions so kids can answer them, and that this constitutes learning. I imagined yanking the curriculum inside-out, flipping the test on its bubbled head.
What if — really, what if — education meant that kids pose questions, profound questions, and then spend a week or a month or half a year answering them. Why do human beings make war? Is it possible to end poverty? Does math matter? What would happen if, every single day, each of us asked someone else one genuine question and then really listened to the answer?
It’s a fantasy, I know. But a girl can dream. Especially during Passover, when we celebrate the outrageously unlikely, but metaphorically potent, story of a bunch of slaves who persuaded a despotic leader to free them, then walked en masse through the sea with unbaked bread on their backs.
I’m determined to carry a squiggle of Passover into the next season. Not the matzah part (don’t worry, friends, I’ve reshelved the flour and oats), but the freedom — the exhortation, even — to pose questions, lots of questions, and to let those questions surprise and unmask and connect us.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Because we’re asking.