By Troy Headrick
Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.” The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue. At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things. Why would I want to do that? My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”
I was very much surprised by what John had said. I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.
Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive. I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper. Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.
I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence. The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable. Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.
Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions. By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.
For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.” Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done. “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical. For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?” This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t. This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.
Then there are questions that start with the word “what.” Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.” For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it. It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong. I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed. “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.
Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind. “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and analysis. For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.” Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question. As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people. They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.
I’d like to finish by giving you a little exercise to complete. Write two or three “why?” questions and then answer them. (These can be about yourself or whatever subject you choose.) Share your questions and responses here to help jump start an interesting dialogue about the art and science of asking good probing queries.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.