“What’s Going On?” as an Essential Question: Jesus, Socrates, and the Imagination

David Wright illustrates all that goes into our coming to know what we know.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

The use of essential questions to guide both curriculum and lesson planning is characteristic of classical Christian education. As John Milton Gregory proposes in The Seven Laws of Teaching, questioning is an artful science that invigorates the learning process by drawing students into an active posture of inquiry, rather than relegating students to passive receptacles of information.1 The use of essential questions is taken to be synonymous with the Socratic method and the teaching style of Jesus, placing the practice squarely at the center of classical and Christian education. The desire of the Socratic and Christological method, however, is concerned with a reality deeper than the (truly gratifying) moment in which a student, rather than the teacher, answers the question. In short, to take a cue from the pedagogies of Socrates and Jesus is to be occupied with a form of comprehension more primary than rationality—namely, the imagination—and to seek after this precise form of comprehension demands an appropriately precise form of questioning. I propose, in the words of a teacher who has had a great influence on me, that Socrates and Jesus teach us to interrogate the imagination by taking the time to ask Marvin’s question, “What’s going on?” before Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”2 In order to develop what is meant by using “What’s going on?” as
an essential question and to demonstrate its use, I will first examine the pedagogies of Socrates and Jesus, reflect upon the philosophical underpinnings of an imagination-centered pedagogy, and, finally, provide two case studies drawn from the seventh and twelfth grade classes I teach.

The Socratic method of interrogation deals with one ethical question by asking a series of other, seemingly unrelated, ethical questions. In order to answer, “What’s to be done?” Socrates demands that we address what’s going on. If we were to ask, “Is it good to know oneself?” Socrates would barrage us with a whole host of other questions: is this knowledge the whole or a part of virtue, is this knowledge teachable, is it enough to make us happy? The purpose is not simply to elicit right answers to a list of discrete questions, but to destabilize our sense of knowledge by demonstrating the unity of these answers—that, in fact, their usefulness is not as distinct definitions or separate units of knowledge, but as they cohere together by their reference to wisdom in its unity.3 To answer one is to find oneself approaching another; to fail to answer one of the many is to fail to know anything at all. It is in this sense that Socrates challenges others by his claim to know only that he knows nothing.4 Socratic questioning resists the fragmentation of knowledge by building connections among different forms of analysis and disciplines of study. To the extent classical education models itself upon the Socratic method, classical educators are committed to rigorous, interdisciplinary interrogation.

Characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is the way he revolutionizes, not simply modifies, understanding. This is because Jesus is not preoccupied with discrete objects of knowledge, but total ways of being in and seeing the world. When the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about the resurrection, they seek to trap him with a “What’s to
be done?” question, but he responds with a revelation of what’s going on. To the question of whose wife a woman married seven times would be in the resurrection, according to the Sadducees’ plans, Jesus would have to either deny the resurrection or betray the law of Moses, which instituted Levirate marriage (see Luke 20:27–40). He does not answer their question when he says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” for “they cannot die anymore.”5 He shows, instead, that their understanding of the resurrection continues to include a place for death—a profound misunderstanding of what the resurrection is. The law of Levirate marriage only makes sense in a world of death, wherein the death of a husband means a grief-stricken widow must be passed along and “given in marriage” to another. The condition for the possibility of their understanding of the resurrection includes death; death has so infected their vision that they are unable to imagine a world without it. It is precisely the good news of the gospel that a new imagination, a new way of seeing, comes with the new creation. To the extent classical Christian education models itself upon the teaching of Jesus, classical Christian educators must be committed to interrogating the imagination.

The imagination is like the structure and contents of a room that we enter. The furniture, the walls, and the carpeting are set: they are the setting in which we eat, read, or converse. A space’s form can have direct bearing on the sorts of encounters or behaviors that take place inside. The open concept living space of a modern home encourages fluid movement and interaction among those who would otherwise be occupying different rooms. A cathedral’s immensity, permanence, and verticality impart upon worshipers the awe that is appropriate for encounter with the eternal and wholly Other.6 Buried with books in the university library’s basement, the graduate student feels life and joy incrementally sapped away with each flicker of the fluorescent lights. To ask what’s going on of a particular situation is to start moving the furniture, tearing up the carpet, and examining the architecture of the rooms we inhabit. Forces beyond our immediate attention operate upon us and shape us; our very perception of particular situations is, in a sense, given prior to our rational engagement with that situation. Like a room, that givenness circumscribes, directs, and limits our engagement; it can make certain choices seem inevitable, and others unthinkable. The question of what’s going on engages this givenness.

James K. A. Smith has identified this imaginative givenness as a faculty that rests somewhere between instinct and intellect.7 It is a discipline deeper than a rationalist worldview that has been constructed over time and passed down by the incorporating and institutionalizing practices of our communities. The imagination is constructed and entered, given and inherited. Moreover, the imagination, not the intellect, is the motivating center of action; if action arose from intellect, academics would surpass all others in moral excellence. Instead, the seat of action is the imagination, or what French philosopher and social theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus: a structure that structures our vision of the world and our moral place in it. Contrary to a common scholastic fallacy, there is no theoretical space above or behind the practices that shape our imagination; rather, we are fully embodied beings and our imagination reflects the social location of our bodies.8 The rooms we enter represent forces of desire and relations of power that shape identity. As Bourdieu carefully points out, this discipline is far from innocent—especially in the academy—for the way we see the world reflects our social location in it, and it is characteristic of this vision to be self-effacing. That is to say, it is all too easy to forget the conditions for the possibility of seeing the world from a position of scholastic privilege—“a site and moment of social weightlessness” wherein philosophical investigation is freed from the constraints of necessity.9 According to Plato, leisure (skholè) is the distinctive and requisite privilege of philosophers, the success of whose heavenly searching depends upon not being preoccupied with the hurried conditions of the world “at their feet.”10 Forgetting the privilege of that detachment, students and teachers re- inscribe the inequalities that support their studious position of sight.

One essential question I have been using with my seventh graders is, “What do stories do?” They have learned a simple answer: “Stories teach us how to see the world.” This is an inquiry along the register of the imagination, but what is the connection between stories, the imagination, and bodily discipline? As the Israelites entered Babylon in
the early sixth century B.C. and passed under the Ishtar Gate, they were submitted to an imaginative discipline. The imposing structure boasts extravagant wealth and power, not only by its sizable, artistic construction but also, and more seductively, by its brilliant, expensive blue hue. Images upon its walls tell the story of Marduk who, according to the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish, created the world by destroying the gods who opposed him and then established the city of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate itself as testimony to his victory. It would be insufficient merely to note this point without attending to its formative power upon those exiled bodies passing under it. The Ishtar Gate serves as an entrance into the city, to Marduk’s temple,
and into the Babylonian imagination. It operates as a habitus, an imaginative discipline of domination over those shackled exiles subjected to it. Walls ask without rational argumentation, “Where is your wealth and power? Where is your city? Where is your god?” Bodies comprehend, “We are captive.”

Shackles tell a similar story in U.S. History. With my seniors, I ask the question more directly, regarding any given event we study, “What’s going on?” Thomas Jefferson is a particularly contested and paradoxical figure who well serves this analytic exercise. An agrarian antifederalist, Jefferson opposed the strong central authority created by the U.S. Constitution: he was one of the many who immediately recognized how subjecting local, state interests to national control would likewise consolidate power with the traditional, urban, moneyed, and property-holding elite. We cannot read the Constitution naively, but must ask with Jefferson what social arrangement the Constitution stabilized. After a century of class conflict—Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 only the latest flashpoint of tenant unrest—the elites sought finally to secure their position.11 James Madison proposed a national representative republican government as a mechanism capable of filtering out the vicious lower passions; according to the maxim of the federalist John Jay, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”12 Once in office, Jefferson advocated for the poor landless whites. He would maintain education as a prerequisite for civic participation, yet he insisted that the poor were capable of being educated, growing in virtue, and joining the American experiment. There was one condition: the institution of slavery would have to be maintained. Who else would support the agricultural industry (America’s backbone, according to Jefferson) if poor whites were to seek advancement and full citizenship? The condition for the possibility of white prosperity was black enslavement—a channel in American imagination and society that flows throughout U.S. History to the present. Jefferson’s imagination was held captive by a racialized vision of the world. Even as Jefferson exposed the hierarchical social arrangement stabilized by the Constitution, we must inquire after what social arrangement had constituted his vision of American democracy.

The ultimate purpose of drawing attention to the ironically non-egalitarian author of the Declaration of Independence is not to cast judgment on an individual, but to demonstrate the way disastrous choices and skewed perception can seem completely reasonable within the horizon of a distorted imagination. “What’s going on?” sets us upon a trajectory capable of exposing that imagination. “What’s going on?” demands that we go deeper than asking what happened, who was involved, when it occurred, and why and how it came about. To follow the classical trivium, these are essential questions of grammar and logic, and they must be answered. We must identify the players, facts, and events in their entire social, political, and economic complexity; we must discern the logic of how those players, facts, and events are organized into relationships of causation. Yet, there remain questions of rhetoric: how are grammar and logic being deployed and whose interests are served? Following the Augustinian principle that societies are constituted by their loves, how does desire shape identity? Furthermore, with Augustine, how do relationships and systems reveal idolatries that play out in lust for domination?13 What is being desired, what relations of power are being established or stabilized, and how are identities being formed in the process? What identity is desirable and who is excluded from this identification? What are the social conditions for the possibility of satisfying what is socially desirable? What is the quality of the relationships being established—e.g., mutual, reciprocal, oppressive, violent? How do particular social arrangements validate or invalidate certain identities and desires? What’s going on? No question is irrelevant to study, as Socrates teaches us. Every question is relevant to exposing whole ways of seeing the world, as Jesus reminds us. Apart from this interrogation, we know nothing—the Ishtar Gate is just architecture, the Constitution is just a text, and slavery is just an institution.