Why Questions?

I invite you to a series of provocations dedicated to elevating questions to their proper status in our approach to learning and understanding.

A celebration of questions has little choice but to begin with an effort to sully the image of answers. As long as questions are treated as but a ritualistic appetizer on the way to a fulfilling meal, they will never be seen as our essential tool—our source of inspiration, creativity, and assessment. Answers are, I think, little more than an invitation to a conversation overflowing with questions about contingencies, contexts, and subsequent dilemmas. They are a rest stop rather than a destination resort.

We make enormous time investments in pursuit of answers. But why? To our credit we are not satisfied with what we know. Our ambition and hubris compels us to comprehend and control our space. Toward that end we respect those with answers; we reward experts and students who provide or create what we optimistically term “the right answers.”

But answers cannot fulfill the responsibilities we assign to them. They are often flawed friends. They promise what they rarely can provide—a secure resting place where we can prepare to launch forward to our next set of answers.

Answers seduce us; they assure us that progress is persistently predictable. But, as the eminent historian Daniel Boorstin observes, we are not held back by our current ignorance, but by the illusion of knowledge suggested by our many answers. Answers do at times provide a harbor in an often foreboding world; we can justifiably celebrate the identification of 13,000 distinct diseases by the World Health Organization. Science yields ways of treating many of them. But an article in the New England Journal of Medicine reminds us that almost ¾ of the findings heralded in the top medical research journals are repudiated within three years of the discovery of these “answers.”

Humans are error prone and fallible. Yet, we need answers to act.  Richard Feynman’s “What Is Science?” eloquently captures a sensible response to the gaping canyon separating the broad-shouldered answers we seek from the often feeble-bodied answers we have. He counsels current generations to “not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth”, but to “pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.” In short, we should hold our answers with a loose grip.

Surely we would want to hold more tightly to some answers than others, while being open to the possibility that even our most treasured answers might be flimsy pretenders. And how are we to make these necessary calibrations?

I hope that this blog models a process many of you will find both engaging and uncommonly productive. Although I will probably fail at times to represent the model skillfully, my intentions are to ask the kinds of questions that provide the foundation for critical thinking. Then I will propose an answer that entices me at the moment. But most importantly, each post will culminate in a set of questions that we need to ask in response to the answer I provide.

The nature of this blog invites questions. I look forward to your efforts to disrupt the calm my answers provide me even when I know I should never trust them so eagerly.

Join in the discussion.