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by John Barell
Table of Contents
The primary skills [learned in college] should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry. In other words, know how to frame a question. How do you evaluate the safety record of an airline? How do you evaluate the risk when you smoke? . . . In this is also the capacity for intelligent empathy, the ability to understand the other side even when you may not share it. You should not be dependent on the sources of information, either provided by the government or by the media, but have an independent capacity to ask questions and evaluate answers.
—Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, on the Goals of a College Education, August 2002
The ability to pose good questions when we are confronted with complex situations contributes to our growing up to living our lives to their fullest potential. We cannot, however, wait until our students become freshmen in college. We need to cultivate their curiosities within the curricula from the first day of kindergarten through their graduation from high school.
Why is this even more important now?
Because of the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
For weeks following that day of infamy I was consumed with the question: “How could this have happened?” Some said we could have predicted the horrific attacks. Certainly, we had warnings, such as the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the World Trade Center in 1993. Terrorists had left their calling cards across Europe and at home. But our leadership did not rouse us to national awareness.
Others have said we entangled ourselves with such bureaucratic procedures and safeguards that it was too difficult to pursue foreign enemies living within our borders. We guarded their civil rights as equally as we guarded those of law-abiding citizens because, we say, we are a nation of laws.
And some have said we just couldn't conceive of any strike against our homeland. “We . . . suffered not from a lack of data but from a failure of imagination,” wrote Lewis Lapham in Harper's Magazine (November, 2001, p. 40). We heard from some government spokespersons that information was available to different agencies, but no one “connected the dots.”
When the first anthrax cases hit Capitol Hill and the offices of U.S. senators and representatives, no one thought, “We have to protect the postal workers. What if anthrax can spread through the machines even if letters containing it haven't been opened?” We should have had people thinking in these hypothetical fashions, but evidently we didn't.
We all know how to ask questions, but it seems as if some of us had not been asking the right questions in key situations prior to September 11. I wonder if our limited response to these events reflects a broader condition—a complacency and passivity, a lack of inquisitiveness among some of us.
Is there any evidence to support such a concern? I think there is, and I deal with more of this data in Chapter 1. Here at the beginning of this book I want to place the whole volume in a context far different from the one I imagined in writing it before September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center occurred in my hometown. I live about five miles north of Ground Zero. The assault on the Pentagon took place not far from the offices of Stephanie Selice and Tim Sniffin, my editors at ASCD in Alexandria, Virginia, who shepherded this book toward publication with masterful craftsmanship, intelligence, and a commitment to its ideals.
As Americans, we have been blessed with so many riches: a homeland bounded by two magnificent oceans and friendly neighbors to the north and south. Our soil has been productive enough to feed and sustain us as well as millions around the world.
But more than the precious gift of the earth we till have been the beliefs by which we live, beliefs for which we fought the Revolutionary War and which are to be found in our sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing each citizen freedom of speech, press, religion, and congregation, and from unlawful searches and seizures.
Men and women of America have fought and died to preserve the freedoms we enjoy and cherish. In difficult times, we have been fortunate to have leaders who measured up to the difficult challenges that threatened our security and our ways of life.
But on September 11 everything changed. This was my first logical thought after the shock of witnessing the attacks on the World Trade Center on television. The lives we lead could no longer be the same. I didn't know then just how differently we would have to go about the business of living, but it seemed as if when terror hit our shores, nothing could remain the same.
Our senses of safety, security, and freedom from what others around the world have experienced for hundreds of years—such as warfare at home—have been obliterated.
This morning I watched a group of school children very happily being led by their teachers along a sidewalk across the street from my home in Manhattan. Perhaps they were joyfully parading to a playground near the East River or to a local hospital or fire station. I wondered what kinds of futures we are preparing for them.
What seems clear to me now is our need to be wide awake to the world around us, to the people with whom we live and the magnificence of nature that envelops us. All of nature is there for us to behold, to learn from and use to sustain our lives in moderation. Most of that world is friendly, but some parts of it are not.
In order to achieve this status of heightened awareness about our communities and the world, we need to foster and develop what makes us unique—that is, our ability to imagine, to think, to ask demanding questions of people and of nature. Our inquisitiveness is the beginning of meaningful learning about the world and ourselves. We become inquisitive when we are very interested in a certain subject and just want to find out more; we are excited about exploring new territories, whether they be the continent of Antarctica or the poetry of Wallace Stevens.
This book is for the educators and parents of the children I saw joyfully parading by my apartment building—the children in the New York City public schools I have the good fortune to work with. My goal is to ensure that our children grow up to be active citizens of our democracy, citizens who take seriously their charge to be what Barbara Tuchman said every government needs, “great askers” (1984, p. 384).
Every citizen of a democracy needs to be constantly vigilant to the status of her freedoms. One way to do this is to possess the capacity and will to challenge authorities whoever and whatever they may be—parent, teacher, employer, past practice, current philosophy, tradition, and folk wisdom. We do this with respect and with reason, not arrogance. How do we prevent such disasters from happening again? What alternatives to current policies are we considering? And how do we acquire the imagination to conceive of possibilities unthought of?
I do not have answers. But I do have a surpassing faith that the contents of this book can help us engage our children and students as my grandfather always tried to challenge me. Llewelyn Ray Ferguson would often say, “Johnny, did you ever wonder . . . ?” He was my model of an inquisitive person and, fortunately, I grew up with the ability to speculate in some areas of my life, but not in all. I need this book to help me become more of a critical citizen, so I ask the kinds of questions of leaders who present policies and programs that directly affect all of us.
Schools can become cultures of inquiry wherein all our children learn to conceive and cherish questions and to act on these curiosities beyond kindergarten, to speculate reasonably and with respect about what they are doing and about the natural and interpersonal worlds into which they are growing.
Nancy Cantor, chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “There isn't a pat answer anymore to this world, so the best we can do for students is have them ask the right questions” (Flaherty, 2002, p. 26).
Inquisitive minds are the safeguards of our democracy, now and forever. But of even greater importance, inquisitive minds are the promise of living enriching lives; they are the energizers of our growing and thriving civilizations.
Leon Botstein concluded his comments, “A college education has to engender a lifelong habit of curiosity, as opposed to becoming more convinced that you are an authority” (Flaherty, 2002, p. 27).
I will add only that this “lifelong habit of curiosity” needs to be developed, nurtured, and cultivated way before college. We must start at home by acknowledging children's questions and helping them find answers throughout their public school lives. The daily curiosities of life can become the habit of mind we call inquisitiveness only by patient, loving, and sustained support throughout one's life.
What are the questions you are asking now? What questions are your students posing? And what questions will ensure that all human beings will live together in peace sharing the benefits of human rights?
—John Barell, August 2002
Flaherty, K. (2002). What should you get out of college? Interviews. In The New York Times Education Life. August 4, pp. 26–28.
Lapham, L. (2001, November). Drums along the Potomac: New war, old music. Harper's Magazine, 303, pp. 35–41.
Tuchman, B. (1984). The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Ballantine Books.
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