Educating for Questions

Listening to Berkley’s podcasted Introduction to Astronomy course the other day (I’m up to the midpoint of the semester and as far out as Jupiter), I finally started to understand Neil Postman’s more common riffs about education, namely that question-asking should be one of the skills that schools should teach.  I always thought of this bit of counsel as a simple “question authority” bit of anti-dogma, and for all I know, that’s as far as Postman meant it.

But I was thinking about the community of scholars worldwide, in all the fields of human knowledge, I realized that any given person with an Internet terminal could have, in theory, access to the best living minds, and in proximity to a library with a courier service or even a mailbox, one could get in a relatively short time and for relatively little money.  (I know that such things are always more available to those living in wealthy areas and with disposable income, but insofar as entire populations in certain areas have access to them, it’s a pretty significant development historically.)

As I was marvelling at this and listening to my Introduction to Astronomy podcast, something dawned on me: given my access as a university student (an ABD in a Ph.D program, no less) to some truly great minds in a vast spread of knowledge-disciplines.  I could talk to one of arguably the world’s top quantum chemist, physicists, economists, historians, and geologists, not to mention all of the experts in various business fields.  The problem is that, other than the historians, I would not have any idea what to ask them.  For that matter, I’m not exactly sure what quantum chemistry is, though I know that UGA’s Center for Quantum Chemistry building is quite nice to look at.

Then I remembered when first I purchased my language tools for Hebrew and Greek back in seminary.  At first glance, Danker’s monster Greek lexicon (with a pink and baby blue cover–whose idea was that?) and the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon with its small print and tightly-packed entries were quite intimidating.  I was accustomed, after all, to opening a book and reading it, but these books I had to be taught to read.  And sure enough, after two semesters each of Greek and Hebrew, I could use the tools, and after two more each, I had made them my own.  (That’s four semesters each of Greek and Hebrew, if anyone’s counting.)  And that’s the key: in order to benefit from access to that information, I had to be educated.  The content of said education is no different than what my forebears in seminaries three hundred years ago learned, but now that basic level of proficiency is a ticket to rapid access, to instant contact with scholars, to all of that information that the Internet enthusiasts told us about.

The problem is, of course, that most Christians, for reasons good and bad, never take any semesters of Greek or Hebrew.  Most college English teachers never learn what quantum chemistry is.  And most citizens of America and Western Europe, though we have fast access to a wealth of information about our solar system that would have made Galileo so envious that he would have gotten meaner than he already was, simply do not know what questions we must ask if we are to make sense of astronomical scholarship.

So now, though I probably should have figured it out much sooner, I’ve realized what an education-for-questions might look like beyond a sophomoric hermeneutics of suspicion applied to blue jeans ads.  It’s learning enough, not just about Biblical languages but about any human knowledge-discipline, that one can actually use the vast and speedy resources at our disposal.  It’s not just about questioning the motives of the producers; it’s acquiring enough of a basic vocabulary that one knows what a question looks like.

Go ahead, O reader.  Tell me you figured this out long ago.  I have it comin’.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reflections, teaching

2 responses to “Educating for Questions

  1. ahandkerchiefsandwich

    Mr. Bones here. Interesting timing since this is the week of the semester where I throw Postman at my comp classes, and see what sticks.

    I returned from a conference for two-year college teachers this weekend. An interesting quote stuck with me, and one which I mumbled about for my first post of a blog I have been meaning to start for a while: http://ahandkerchiefsandwich.wordpress.com/
    In a nutshell, the quote was “how can we expect students to provide answers when they don’t know the questions?”
    When I posed the question “what in this instance do we mean by ‘questions'”directly to my comp students, one high school dual enrollment student provided the wonderfully succinct response “knowledge.”

  2. Mr. Bones! What a range of screen names you have!

    I’ve proposed a topics comps class for the spring whose reading list will be excerpts from Enlightenment-era philosophy organized around Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. I never can remember when the FYC committee meets to approve or squash comp classes, but I should find out soon if I’ll be teaching it.

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