Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Next Beautiful Question

Education as a question that leads to the next needed question. As good a definition of my educational philosophy as any. Naturally, we want some right answers along the way— the 2 + 2 = 4 variety as well as the more intricate and complex kind—but it is the questions that keeps things moving. Questions are the verbs in the grammar of life-long learning, the active agents that keeps things flowing and glowing and growing. 


And so I have been attracted to that which puts the question in the center. A Zen Buddhist practice based on koans, those unanswerable questions of the “sound-of-one-hand-clapping” variety that we nevertheless seek to answer. An Orff practice that constantly pokes me with “How else can you do this?” A jazz discipline that gives me a melody and chords and asks, “Now what are you going to do with them in your solo?” Note that all three require an effort on my part, an attempt to find my own way through to an answer that is wholly mine. And then invites me to the question that will help form the next version of myself.


And I have equally been repulsed by those fundamentalist dogmas that simply ask me to believe someone else’s answer. No effort required, no thought needed, just blind belief. And no movement, just a stagnant pond with no spring feeding it and no outlet to the larger ocean. Be it religion, politics or even a mandated (no matter how well-intentioned) political correctness, I’m invited to stop my questioning and simply accept the answers handed down. Answers on a test that could be corrected by a computer. 


The poets are certainly on my side. In his poem Start Close In, David Whyte writes:


Start with your own 


Give up on other

people’s questions.

Don’t let them

smother something



In When I Heard the Learned Astronomer, Whitman writes:


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


Whitman’s impatience with charts and diagrams led him to the silent awe of participation in life’s mysteries. Mary Oliver’s leads her to music. 


The man who has many answers

is often found

in the theaters of information

where he offers, graciously,

his deep findings. 


While the man who has only questions, 

to comfort himself, makes music.


And finally, there’s e.e.cummings in an introduction to one of his books of poetry:


Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question. 


In short, beware of all that demands easy answers. Seek out that which invites inquiry, uncertainty, doubt. 


Any questions?


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