Unexpected Delights: Questioning Assumptions

Well, my semester is wrapped up, grades submitted, and tied with a bow. I enjoyed getting to know my students after having them in both the fall and spring semesters.

I am so privileged that over the course of my teaching career I have had the opportunity to work with the most brilliant and creative students. These are the kind that ask questions to which I have no answers, who make jokes in the context of what we’ve discussed in class, who are open to new ideas, and who really apply the course content in their work.

My spring semester class focused on postcolonial criticism, and we discussed issues relating to postcolonial Morocco. My students (mostly French, with a few Moroccans and one from Sub-Saharan Africa) candidly spoke their opinions about women’s rights, cultural imperialism, and Western aid, among other things.

As you may guess, the opinions that were expressed were largely correlated to cultural background. This made me think that maybe the most important question to ask ourselves is: “What do we value and why do we value it?” I value equality, democracy, justice, women’s rights… Why? Because these are the values of my family and cultural background. And it follows that to love our neighbor we must also ask: “What does she value and why does she value it?”

We need to first ask what is needed and then offer help.

This past winter I read a thought-provoking article in the New York Times Magazine about universal income. The idea behind the NGO Give Directly is to give cash to the very poor. The author, Annie Lowrey, explained, “Cash was more valuable to its recipients than the in-kind gifts commonly distributed by aid groups, like food or bed nets or sports equipment. If you’re hungry, you cannot eat a bed net. If your village is suffering from endemic diarrhea, soccer balls won’t be worth much to you.” By not finding out what is truly needed, well-meaning aid organizations inadvertently waste aid: Cow buying programs gave people animals that they could not sustain in their environment and there is an overabundance of Toms shoes being resold in the markets in Kenya.

IMG_5030Give a man a fish and eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he wishes he owned a fishing pole and some nets. Ask a man what he needs to improve his life and he might just tell you. The Give Directly recipients were able to invest in their specific needs which varied from buying fishing line to catch tilapia to purchasing a goat.

We can’t assume that all people want what we have to offer. It doesn’t really work to impose our value systems on others. (That said, I believe that all humans are entitled to basic rights which no other humans should threaten.)

As an educated person, I have been taught to think critically. I would like to think that I question assumptions as a habit of mind. However, I must admit that when I am in my own culture, many things just seem normal to me. If I asked a fish to describe water, could he do it? Probably not, since that is all he knows. But remove a fish from the water and he sees everything that the water is and is not. The same is true for us human-types. When we are in a different environment or culture, we gain perspective on all the environments or cultures that we have ever been in.

For now, my friends, question assumptions.

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.”





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