My favorite students were always the ones who asked questions. They were unafraid to seek answers for whatever concerns were on their minds. I always cringed whenever I heard a colleague shutting down a youngster by brusquely indicating irritation with inquiries that they thought were “stupid.” I don’t believe that there is ever a question from a child or an adult for that matter that is unworthy of some kind of response. I truly believe that the innate curiosity that prompts inquiries from little ones is the very foundation upon which we humans learn. Somewhere along the developmental path so many lose their willingness to seek answers to the issues that trouble their minds.
The great discoveries and philosophies of the world began with questions. Our wonder drives our inventiveness. We are creative beings who see our environments through a lens of inquisitiveness. We are not merely satisfied to accept our environment as it is. We want to know why it is. We are not only capable of thinking, but also of thinking about how we think. We have a need to understand that is guided by the questions that surface in our minds.
I enjoy a lively discussion in which each person’s ideas are respected and given a platform. I like to hear how other people think about societal issues. It matters little to me whether or not I agree with them. I am simply fascinated by the different paths that individuals follow. At the same time I am always disturbed by efforts to silence those with whom we disagree. We lose something when we only associate ourselves with like minded individuals. Our need to delve deeper into inquires evaporates when we only hear what we already believe. It may feel good to have our philosophies reinforced but it does nothing to expand our minds, to learn something that we never before knew. Being around conflicting opinions forces us to critically parse the information that we are hearing, an exercise that we seem to do so little of these days.
I think that perhaps the most important question that we may ask ourselves is why we are so often afraid of questions. We hide from them in the guise of being irritated but what I believe is really happening is that we feel challenged in a way that moves us out of our comfort zone and into the realm of unknowns that shake the very foundations of what we believe. It can be a terrifying but also exhilarating moment to suddenly wonder if perhaps there is indeed a new way of looking at the world.
In the long ago when my husband was a graduate student at the University of Houston he received invitations from a professor who hosted intellectual soirees at his home. It was a gathering of academics who spent the evening sitting in a circle discussing the great theories and inquires of the world. The professor would jump start the proceedings with a question of his own that was not meant to elicit a specific response but rather a multitude of possible responses. I generally sat and just listened to the remarkable variety of thinking that ensued. I felt that my own view of life expanded just from hearing so many novel ideas, some of which challenged the very foundations of what I had always believed. I found both the complementary and conflicting philosophies to be liberating as they created more and more questions in my mind.
I worry that today’s society has set boundaries for independent thinking that are as rigid as those teachers that I have witnessed ridiculing students for asking questions that appear to be without merit. There is a stifling of free thought that will in turn limit the depth of learning that every society needs to thrive. It has to be okay to think in unique ways without fearing retaliation. Our schools must be forums in which everyone is willing to suspend preconceived notions for the sake of finding new possibilities. Debate needs to be reinstated to its former glory as a way of seeking truth through logic and a willingness to consider many sides of an argument. We should all be insisting that we hear all voices, not just those that already concur with what we believe. Without truly open discourse we stagnate as individuals and as a society.
The great moments of history have been guided by a kind of enlightenment, imperfect for certain but nonetheless willing to look at our human existence in unique ways. Where would we be without the methods of Socrates, the groundbreaking inquisitiveness of Leonardo da Vinci, the observant genius of Shakespeare, the brilliance of Descartes, the revolutionary ideas of Locke? The greatest minds ask questions seeking not only the given but also the unknown. Truth is found not by drowning the voices of those with whom we disagree but by quieting our own long enough to see that tiny grain of truth hidden in the bombast. Inquiry is not just about questions but also about a willingness to honestly hear the answers being offered.
I suppose that for me the most important question of all is, “How can we humans best develop our willingness to learn through honest and open inquiry that proceeds with a willingness to hear all voices before drawing conclusions?” This should be the most natural way to learn but at least for now we seem to have chosen to dialogue only with those who agree with us and feign indignation when we encounter those who don’t. I doubt we will see much progress until we change our ways.