Why Ask Why?

Given the current state of our political environment, I have been recalling the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” quite frequently. The tale of two weavers who dupe the king into believing he has a new suit of clothes that are invisible to those who are unfit for their position, or are stupid or incompetent. No one dares to say that s/he doesn’t see a new suit of clothes until a child cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Typically the phrase the “Emperor’s new clothes” has come to mean anything that smacks of pretension or pomposity. These days my thoughts keep turning to the element of denial in the story. No one wants to face the facts. No one wants to tell the Emperor that he is indeed naked. The weavers deceive others by making them doubt what they believe, appealing to their fear. They don’t want to call out a lie because the collective group would expose them as stupid or unfit.

In today’s climate, evidence has been devalued. Statements are made without any basis in fact and despite the rise of media fact checkers, the public turns a blind eye to the facts.

That is why I love working for the Great Books Foundation. In my years as a professional development consultant I’ve worked with thousands of students who’ve learned to embrace the facts to defend their positions. Using the text as a basis for their critical thinking has empowered students to give reasoned and impassioned voice to their beliefs.

I recall one particular discussion of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in which we vigorously debated the question “Why is it a child that tells the truth about the Emperor’s new clothes?” The students debated a number of answers—children are not afraid, children like to challenge adults. But the moment that stands out for me is when one student—a student who often struggled with the readings—listened thoughtfully for the entire discussion. At the end of the discussion he raised his hand and said, “Mr. Elsey, I have a question?” I asked him for his question.

“Why does the Emperor keep marching around naked after everybody knows he doesn’t have a suit?”

Why indeed.

Michael Elsey has an MFA in film and is Director of Digital Media at the Great Books Foundation. In his spare time he writes screenplays, watches movies, and discusses the cultural significance of Phineas and Ferb with his 9-year-old son.






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