Asking “Why.”

My high-school friend Becca is an avid reader of this blog. She doesn’t comment here, because she doesn’t want to be bothered signing up for a WordPress account, but instead she tends to email me with her thoughts every now and again. I love it, and I love her, which I hope she knows even though about half the time I never get back to replying to those emails.

It’s strange in some sense, though not really at all once you get into it, because Becca also happens to be a devout Mormon. On surface glance, she’s not the most likely demographic for a blog that gained popularity due to my love affair with the word “fuck,” and where I published glamor shots of my love affair with Jack Daniels. You know, stuff that most devout Mormons, as a rule, aren’t going to be into. It just doesn’t seem like their style.

Becca and I are the same age. She’s married, with two adorable kids. She’s got this very adult-seeming life with a family and a church community. I’ve got a coffee addiction, a fully stocked bar in the kitchen, and a panoply of freaks and weirdos I call my dearest friends, some of whom have different colored skin and some of whom have badass tattoos and some of whom are boys who like boys or girls who like girls or any combination thereof. So her life feels sort of foreign and mysterious to me. I imagine my life feels the same way to her.

She emailed me the other day, and asked for my advice. She’s been asked to teach a lesson to the girls’ youth group in her church about the importance of education, and wondered if I might have anything to add. She sent along the church’s lesson plan, which I read and promptly felt about three inches tall. The whole thing was structured around the idea of why God thinks it’s probably a good idea for young women to gain an education, and try as I might, I’m just some girl who walked around last week with mismatched earrings and a coffee stain on my shirt. I have no authority to convince these girls of anything, especially not when compared with what God might have to say on the subject.

The first email I sent her had a link to Malala Yousafzai’s interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. I figured, here’s an easy jumping-off point! Look! In other parts of the world, this is an issue of such grave importance that this brave little girl is risking her life, after being SHOT IN THE FACE BY THE TALIBAN. We have it so easy. We take so much for granted. Don’t let me be the one to tell you. Let her. She’s sixteen and knows more about the world than we ever, ever will.

And then I thought more about it, and I thought, you know — maybe that’s not actually the right move here after all.

When I was in high school, nothing infuriated me more than knowing adults were talking down to me. As an adult myself, it turns out that talking to teenagers is hard.  As adults, we can’t help but view them as children. We’re so naturally protective, so unwilling to let them figure out that the world is complicated and that adults don’t really have it all together either. But as a teenager, I felt so much like an adult already. Please, I’m a person, I wanted to scream at every patronizing authority figure who proffered well-meaning but condescending advice. Talk to me like one. 

And as a kid who grew up fairly sheltered, in that uniquely privileged way particular to middle-class white girls from the suburbs, anything outside the reaches of my own little bubble seemed so far away that it didn’t really apply, necessarily, to me. Sure, it’s terrible, what happens in other parts of the world. But, look, I’m kind of busy over here ignoring my parents and crushing on boys and trying to keep my grades up and not get shoved into a locker. I’m sure I would have watched that video at sixteen, thought, yeah, I guess I’m pretty lucky, and gone right back to ignoring whatever point the teacher was trying to make.

Which brings me back to my original point. I don’t know these specific young women in Becca’s youth group. I don’t know anything about them, and they don’t know anything about me. I’m not Malala Yousafzai, and I’m certainly not God. And if their worldview isn’t expansive enough to listen to either of those two authorities on the subject, I have no idea what I could possibly add to the conversation.

The email that I finally wrote Becca looks like this. I don’t think I got it completely right, but it’s a start.

I don’t know if Becca will use it, and I don’t know if it will actually speak to those girls at all. The idea that “education is important,” had been ingrained in me at such an early age that it was a surprise to learn that there are parts of the world where it simply isn’t seen as that big of a deal.  I remember, too, what it felt like to be so disappointed and discouraged by shitty teachers at various points throughout my life that I sometimes felt like school was kinda pointless too. (I also was very lucky, and I had some pretty incredible teachers that changed my life. In my experience, the good usually outweighs the bad).

I know that I went to college, and it blew my mind, to be surrounded by students who wanted to learn, and teachers who loved to teach.

I know that I couldn’t have written this letter if I hadn’t received my education from teachers both terrible and transcendent. They taught me both so much, in such vast and incomparable ways.

So Becca? Here goes.


Hey, ladies. You don’t know me. I live far away, and I’ve never met any of you, and I don’t know anything about you — your lives, your hopes, your fears, your dreams. So it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t want to listen to what I had to say at all. Why should you? I’ve done nothing to prove that I’m worth listening to.

My friend Becca asked me what I would say, if I was able to talk to you today. I struggled with this for awhile. For starters, because of all of the stuff I just mentioned. Why should you care what some woman you’ve never met thinks?

The other part that I’ve been struggling with is — I’m not great at talking about God. And I imagine that Becca, unlike me, is GREAT at that. She’s always been good at that. We’ve known each other since high school, and we would sit on the school bus and on my living room couch, talking for hours and trying to solve the massive puzzle that is faith and logic and reason and the meaning of everything. (Plus, you know. Sometimes we talked about boys. Ok. We talked about boys a lot. Don’t tell her I told you that). We landed on different sides of the country, and on somewhat different sides of the argument. She wound up out there with you guys, plus with two beautiful babies and a husband, and a strong relationship with her church community. I wound up in Philadelphia, where I live next to a vegan coffeeshop and hang out with my gay roommates and my weird artist friends. I do some of that stuff you’re not supposed to do — I drink sometimes, I curse too much — and I’m honestly not sure where I land on the whole God thing. In some ways, I’m still that kid on the school bus trying to figure out the meaning of it all.

So, no. You probably shouldn’t listen to anything I have to say.

But here’s the thing. Just because I’m not sure what I think about God doesn’t mean I’ve stopped asking questions. And just because Becca and I wound up making different choices and living different lives doesn’t mean that I think one of our paths is any better than the other. They’re just different, that’s all.

Much like Becca and myself, you’re going to go different places in your lives, too. Look around the room. Some of you might stay in this very town for years and years and years, and that’s a beautiful choice. Some of you might travel the world. Some of you might live in faraway cities, and some of you might climb mountains or become president. Some of you might get married and start families. Some of you might not. None of those things is better than the other. They’re just different. That’s all.

Here’s the part that I think is universal, no matter what choice you make. Having an education is critically important, no matter where you go. I can’t talk to you about why God thinks you should get an education. Becca can do a way better job of that than I ever could. I’m just going to talk about why I simply think becoming educated makes a lot of sense.

You’re all going to go different places, and that’s a wonderful thing, and I am telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that if you have some understanding of the world around you, and the desire to know more about it, you will find your life deeper and richer because of it.

Look, “education” isn’t some vague concept dreamt up by bored schoolteachers with nothing better to do than lock you in a room and tell you some boring stuff at a boring desk surrounded by boring kids reading boring books who are incredibly bored. It’s not. I thought it was for awhile, and there are some lousy teachers out there who might make it hard to think otherwise. Don’t let ’em get you down. That’s not what this is about at all.

Education, at its core, is about learning HOW to think. That’s what this is all really about. Stay in school not because you have to, but because I think asking the question “Why?” is the most important thing you can possibly do, now and for the rest of your life. Education is about answering that question. Education is about teaching you how to reason, how to interpret facts and distill feelings. It’s about the thrill of learning what it is that you believe, and why you believe it. When you ask, “Why?,” you’ll go off on a journey, in search of an answer. (The best questions are the ones where you end up having just created more questions than answers. How much more there is to learn, and to discover!)

You gain an education so that you can understand the world around you. So you know why it is that the sky is blue and why the grass is green and what kind of bug that is. (Looking it up on your phone is one thing. Knowing and understanding are something else altogether).

You gain an education so that you can be transported to new and wild worlds just by opening a book. Learn to LOVE to read, so that the words of the people who have figured out a thing or two themselves can bring you along with them on their journeys. Some of those authors, you’ll click with. Some of them you won’t, and you’ll slam the book down and roll your eyes and click on the TV. A little TV is fine. I’m not knocking you for wanting to know what’s going on with How I Met Your Mother. But it’s not giving your brain the workout that it needs. Words are intoxicating. Learn to love them. Stuck with lousy teachers right now? Good news — there are so many great ones. They’re at the library, any time you want to visit.  (And — if you’re lucky, there are some good, flesh-and-blood teachers in your lives, too. Talk to them. The good ones will talk back. The really good ones will change your life.)

You gain an education so that you can vote intelligently. There are a lot of people yelling about politics, ALL THE TIME. On television, on the radio, on facebook, on twitter. I find it exhausting. It’s really, really hard to sort out the propaganda from the truth. When you can think critically enough to wade through the murk and ask the question, “What is it that I truly believe?,” you won’t believe how exhilarating it feels to discover what is important to you, and why.

You gain an education so you can understand people. Education can teach us to listen, really and truly listen, to what others are saying. It can open our eyes, not only to what our brains are doing on a chemical level (Brains are AWESOME! There is so much we still don’t know!) but also allow us to be better at figuring out what we feel, and how to think about our feelings. And if we are able to better articulate our own feelings, we are better able to understand what others are feeling, which is called empathy, and I’m sure you can guess why that might be a skill we might want to strengthen. (Hey, and did you know — a scientific study was just released that says that people who read literary fiction are actually strengthening their brain’s capacities for understanding empathy! You can actually train yourself to be a better friend, sister, daughter, mother, wife, — all while you thought you were just doing your English homework!)

You gain an education so that you can talk to people. Not just about the world immediately around you — though that stuff is present, and important, and occupies most of our time. But the world is bigger than you, or me, and being able to think critically about it and talk about the world around us is fascinating. Plus, you’ll be way more fun at parties.

You gain an education because we are tiny humans on this planet. We are incredibly and beautifully complicated creatures, and it could take a lifetime to figure ourselves out, and we’ll still never get there. The world around us is incredibly complicated, and it will take a lifetime to try and figure it out, and we’ll still never get there.

But the world, and you, will feel richer for trying.

Your teachers don’t know everything. But they know a little something. And they’re probably learning from you. Especially if you ask them “why?” every now and again.

Learn from them. Ask questions. Ask “Why?” You’ll be glad you did. Wherever you end up. Whatever choices you make.



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84 thoughts on “Asking “Why.”

  1. Thanks for this. I am going back to school this November after a year of quitting. I keep telling myself I’ll only graduate for my mom, so the thought of going to school is sort of depressing and like a chore for me. I really hate conformity, and the rules in our university are insane. This blog makes me rethink my purpose of going back. This was probably the answer to my “Why am I still going back to school?” 😀

  2. Hello! As a former mormon who has left the faith, (also 29 and divorced) I’ve now had the opportunity to be on both sides of this equation, and I would say that your advice is spot on. I truly hope she gives the message to the kids. Because while I’m glad that the girls are being taught of the importance of education, I also know that they are being taught that marrying and having a family as soon as possible is even more important – the most important thing a person can do, in fact – a better, more worthy choice. I know that while they say they are teaching the importance of gaining an education, they also discourage looking for some kinds of knowledge outside of mormon publications, and that people who ask “why” too much are going to eventually be “deceived” away from their faith. They need to know that they can and should ask “why” about anything and everything, that they should figure out what is really important to them and not just what they are taught is important, and that there are many paths in life to take that are on equal planes with marriage and children. I would have said the same thing to them, except you said it a million times better. 🙂

    • I really like what you said about it being important for them to figure out “what is really important to them and not just what they are taught”! This is a fabulous point that I think is lost on so many people in the world. I am just finishing my master in elementary education right now and about to begin my student teaching program. It amazes me who much of the time people just take what they hear for granted and don’t do their own inquiry; or they just take what they hear and either agree or disagree on their feeling rather than evidences. You’re right, there are many paths to take in life and the bottom line is that if someone doesn’t choose what is right for them and have conviction about it, they will wind up miserable because of it. Know what you’re doing, don’t just blindly follow. You’ll bang your head and probably get a concussion from it. (that’s a general ‘you’, not a personal ‘you’ sweetsound)

      • 🙂 Thanks for your lovely reply, Donna Lewis. I have indeed banged my head and got a concussion!! I’ve been lucky to have the amazing experience of “recovering” though. You are so right about what you said!!

  3. I really like this post Katherine, how wonderful that you took the time to share with these young people.
    I hope that Becca shares this entire post with her group because the intro is powerful.

    I especially liked >(Hey, and did you know — a scientific study was just released that says that people who read literary fiction are actually strengthening their brain’s capacities for understanding empathy! You can actually train yourself to be a better friend, sister, daughter, mother, wife, — all while doing you thought you were just doing your English homework!)<

    I firmly believe that !
    It worked for me 🙂

  4. I’m a Mother of 2, teacher, woman who also drinks and probably curses too much, and lover of your blog. My 15 year old daughter, like most I suppose, thinks I’m an idiot. I’m passing this one along to her. Thanks for breaking it down!

  5. Okay Katherine, where were you when my four girls were teenagers? Oh right, you were a teenager too. Well, you’re a very wise young woman now, and I just wish I had known how to express this to my girls back then. Or maybe more importantly, that someone had passed it on to me when I was a teen! Well said!

  6. Your post just made my night. Actually, it made my weekend. You are incredibly gifted, and I thank you so much for sharing your blog with the rest of us. 🙂

  7. Excellent post. I didn’t really know what education was for years and everyone talks down to me because I’m in my twenties and ‘completely inexperienced’. WHY is a brilliant question, one that I am constantly asking and was always frustrated by school because they do tell you how to think but they don’t teach you to ask WHY. I’m still learning and getting new ideas from all I read in books and blogs actually and I love it.

  8. I have pocketed this to share to others in the future, how very true and clear. I agree whole heartedly with you, I have a son of one and all I ever want for him in education is to ask “why?!”.

  9. I am an active Mormon, and I am glad to see some of the friendships I have reflected in your relationship with Becca. Some of my friends and I differ greatly in our religious belief and lifestyles, but we have a foundation of respect genuine friendship. Even when we don’t agree, we respect each other’s belief and understand why the other person believes and lives it. We can still be friends. We can still give each other life advice. I think it is great Becca reached out to you, and I think your words will mean a lot to the young women she is working with. It is important to be exposed to and understand beliefs that are different than your own, because there are great people in every walk of life.

  10. Wow. WELL SAID!

    I’m in school now. Trying to finish what I started nearly 20 years ago. Ok. More like 32, if you count all that stuff prior to college. I wish I’d had someone put some good perspective in my head like that when I was younger. It might have saved me a great deal of frustration. Somehow, point of view changed over the last few decades, and I’m at the point that I NEVER want to stop taking classes. I’m just enjoying it too much.

  11. Awesome! As a person who struggles with issues of faith and spirituality, I completely hear what you are saying about the importance of education and asking the question “Why?” We need the next generation to think more deeply and be more empathetic than ours. Great advice (and maybe just as important and powerful as god’s).

  12. Thank you for sharing this. I found your letter to be incredibly honest, and it really resonated with me. I appreciate the thought you put into this post.

  13. All I can think of is “what a kick-ass response”. And then I think that’s a pretty simplistic response for someone who’s been educated… Yet. Kick-ass. I’m sharing this with any teenager who sits still long enough. 🙂

  14. I love this why question! I am currently working full time so that I can finish my degree at a private school. Some days, I wish I could quit – take all the money in my savings account and go crazy – buy a car, new technology, but I always come down to the question why. I feel as though I am missing out on something that my peers can access so easily, but I am learning to keep my eyes open. This isolation of work is teaching me to read even more voraciously than before, to watch people and think about the motives of humanity as individuals, and I STILL being educated. The idea of returning to school is thrilling because my thirst for knowledge has grown as a result of school being “taken away”. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts on education and asking the question why.

  15. Your a blessing from above… Even if I don’t put up any post on my word press account… Reading this word for word and grasping it.. Was all I needed to make my last year in the university worth it…. With love from Ghana

  16. I was the kid who drove my teachers insane in elementary school — asking “why?” of everything they told me. I grew up to become a journalist and NF author, reading voraciously all the time to try and understand/analyze/explain the the world to my readers. There is nothing more essential (perhaps compassion) than a lifelong curiosity about the rest of the world, whether your next-door neighbors or the political situation in Pakistan.

    As we say in J-world, if your mother says she loves you, check it out… 🙂

    Great, great post, missy!

  17. Wow! Great writing and wonderful thoughts. I work as a Para-Educator in a high school. Most of my kids have struggled with school all their lives. So often they don’t see the point of struggling anymore. Your insight will be a great thing to share with them. Thank you, and I am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  18. Brilliant post. In the UK, lots of us are worried that the current government is keen on teaching our children to just learn facts off by heart, rather than how to think. It’s all got to be about asking ‘why’ hasn’t it? And perhaps that is unsettling for a government.

  19. Are you sure you`r not on team Malala or team God? I found your letter honest and am not sure if God would have done a much better work (I hear it`s hard to get him to say something, anyway). True magic is being oneself, and I love how you do that. You`ve come to your own conclusions about life, like “different paths are okay” and that is also some type of education. I think you describe the reasons for educating oneselves in a good way, I wish every teacher would ask their students about why they think they learn and use time discussing why they should:)
    Love, Nina

  20. Well it’s good to see that someone else, besides me, writes long articles. I have been trying to change that and write a little bit shorter. Having no clue why I decided that. I think that when I come to a long article, unless it is about one of my most favorite topics, I tend to not read the entire article. Laughing here, perhaps as I get older my attention span gets younger. 🙂 Nice article -what I read of it. Thanks for writing.

  21. This is amazing! Your writing is so insightful, even to an old 38 year old who has been down on life for a long time. Today is a new choice and a new adventure. Thank you!

  22. I came from a society and country where you had nothing but education. Even the educated are not making a sensible living so being uneducated is close to no option to most people I know.
    However, this piece spoke to me and I realized the importance to re-evaluated the reason for an education. To see it as not just going through a motion but a means to gain and experience a remarkable experience.

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