Fred Niedner: Why learn anything? To learn about ourselves, of course
October 1, 2011 3:38PM
Updated: November 15, 2011 8:53AM
There are no stupid questions, says an article of faith among educators. Some questions test this creed, however, and last week I thought for a moment I’d heard one.
As I led students in examining closely the biblical story of Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, the familiar account of the “exodus” rehearsed among Jews and Christians for 3,000 years, a student raised her hand. She asked, with a hint of dismissiveness, “And what precisely is the point of knowing all this?”
Silently, my mind asked, “Where does one begin to answer such a question?” She didn’t wonder whether this would be on the next exam, and despite my initial suspicion, I don’t think she meant to rebuke me for dragging her through some useless trivia that added no cash value to her college education. Rather, she wondered why anyone bothers to look so closely at such well-known, oft-told tales. Do all those details matter?
Yes. But only if you want to catch the humor, or hear the ancient narrators whisper the secrets of their souls, or see your own heart reflected back as you peer inside with patience and care.
Tell the story too quickly, and one misses the comedy of dancing about in a world overrun with frogs, or the deity’s little joke on Moses. When Moses asks what name he should give when the slaves ask who is the god that sent him on his crazy mission, the answer comes, “I AM.” Imagine the laughter when Moses repeats that.
Three days’ journey into freedom, the people realize the wilderness has no suitable waterworks. Their response? Most translations say they “complained.” Rendered literally, the text says the people filed a lawsuit against Moses. Obviously they had no court of law out there, nor any lawyers for that matter. But lest we think we live in the first or only age of litigious excess, this narrator lets us see that human expectations have always birthed resentments that gave lawyers all the work they can handle.
Beyond the water problems come scarcity of food, disputes over leadership qualifications and a general cussedness that generates a nearly continual din of grousing and griping. Following the onomatopoetic Hebrew, the English reads grumble, grumble, murmur, murmur, grumble, murmur, nag.
Fellow Americans, when I peer into that scene, I see and hear us. And just like those ancient former slaves who began to daydream about the free food — “Ah, the leeks, garlic, cucumbers and melons we got for nothing back in Egypt!” — but completely forgot that they had those groceries at the price of slavery, we convince ourselves, too, that our best times lie behind us, and now we have only wilderness.
My students, who’ve been told all their lives to follow their passions, wonder what careers they’ll find in this wilderness-era job market. Voila! The exodus story also offers vocational advice. A young man looking for direction hears a voice that says, “I have work for you. Do something about the suffering, brokenness and captivity of those who live in your land.”
Perhaps the time has come to teach those who seek advice about what to do with their lives the ancient, tested wisdom in gazing not only inside, but looking outside ourselves, listening to the crying needs, and putting passion, vigor and youthful strength into the tasks of mending what is broken, making levers that lift prisoners from pits of impossibility, doing whatever needs doing.
What’s the point of knowing all this? Good question! Answer: Having a life. And knowing we aren’t the first generation whose habits make lawyer jokes necessary.