Violet postdates the Sumerians and Babylonians by many millennia, so she can be forgiven for questioning their use of a sexagesimal numerical system to divide our day into hours, minutes, and seconds. This long-accepted fashion made sense when we used sundials instead of atomic clocks. But now, to a six-year old, it seems arbitrary and at odds with the decimal system that pervades the rest of our existence. Which is why she asked what would happen if there was a 66-second minute.
The question stopped me cold and also made me giggle. The mind of a child is constantly searching, trying to make sense of a nonsensical world, to at least impose some explanation on the inexplicable. I did not have a ready answer and only generally alluded to the fact that adding six seconds to every minute would have serious ramifications. Inquisitive by age and by specific nature, she pressed on with a kid’s eternal query: Why?
Sometime in our transition from adolescent to adult, that inquiry loses its primacy. We may still wonder at the origins of the institutions and standards that define our lives, but those are fleeting concerns subsumed by the ignominies and unexpected joys of daily living. The international monetary cabal just is, our system of governance just is, the way that we tell time just is, our languages just are.
But this is the equivalent of answering the question of “Why?” with “Because.” There is a reason that children find this explanation deeply unsatisfying. If the current moment illustrates anything, it is that our foundational institutions could stand a thorough reevaluation. And yet, we treat them as an inevitability. This is a strain of pessimism to which we should not succumb.
Questioning is not heresy. (Tell that to Galileo). It is secular and apolitical. Sure, it can be politicized, but in its purest form it is the essential expression of what it means to be human. We are not lemmings. We are imbued with the power to rationalize instead of blindly follow. We are made to believe that our current structures are the ideal ones, because the centers of power are secured by that illusion. But, looking back at our history shows, if not a steady, then at least a meandering evolution away from practices that we now look upon with shame.
The 60-second minute has been questioned, tested, subjected to the trials of time itself and has emerged as the standard. Other methods were attempted, but this one rose to the fore. The next centuries or millennia may uncover a method of keeping time that better suits advances in scientific understanding.
Similarly, America’s current organizing principle is loosely democratic capitalism, emphasis on the latter. From the dreams of our founders, we have survived turmoil and celebrated triumph and now find ourselves at another crux point. Given the mixed results of this national experiment, it is time for us to again question what it means to be an American and the legacy that this country will leave upon the Earth.
With the intelligence of an adult and the imagination of a child, we must be free to postulate a reinvention of our government and our justice system. Rather than feeling trapped by the status quo, we have the liberty to conjure remedies to the inequalities of our economic model. We encourage our kids to dream big and question everything. It is time that we heeded our own advice.