Friday, January 7, 2011

The Questions: They Are More Important Than the Answers

I am fortunate to work with colleagues in our Institute on Excellence in Undergraduate Education who are both constantly sharing good ideas with me, and also prodding me to do this and that. One prod has been for the first blog topic of the year. I have been wrestling with this. And I have been tempted by so many possibles!

I thought about how we might better capture the New Year’s resolve of our students. And I have thought about whether this year is going to be better or worse for the academy than last. And I have thought about what were the uses I made of my holiday vacation and what should I learn from that. And on and on.

But I finally hit on it tonight when I was trekking through the Atlanta airport on my first professional trip of the new year. I noted a billboard that was sponsored by a chaplaincy group and it caught my attention with a really punch question: “What is your ultimate destination?” Now for a captive audience of airline passengers who often have good reason to wonder what their “ultimate destination” will be that day, as opposed to what they wanted it to be, now that is an opportune question.

This launched for me an immediate fantasy of the campus of the future where we might try to capture our students’ attention with, yes, even billboards, but instead of selling them products and services, we would be asking them to consider important intellectual and personal questions and ideas.

So what if one of those we would pitch to them would be: “What is your ultimate destination?” Oh, I can think of so many more.

For me, this comes naturally because, above all, I learned in college that the questions are more important than the answers. I was so fortunate to have so many wonderful professors and fellow students who forced me to confront so many important questions.

Some examples:
1. What is justice? This was posed to me in a political philosophy course as we read Plato’s Republic and it has been the driving question for my career as I pursued “justice” for first-year students, and now more recently, transfer students.
2. Just what constitutes good government? This makes me ask just what are the new House members who took over the House of Representatives actually going to do for college students?
3. Why do people voluntarily enter into relationships or vote into power governments that ultimately deprive them of their freedom? This question was inspired by my reading in my first year of Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom.
4. In my senior year I read Fromm’s The Art of Loving, which initiated me into an adult journey of asking thoughtful and profound questions about the nature of love, how to identify, attain, give, receive it.

I could wax on indefinitely but won’t.

So what are the questions we should be asking our students to think about as they begin this new year? I hope you will be posing these questions to your students in thoughtful and provocative ways. They will remember them, pursue them, and be transformed by them. I am not an atypical case, at least not in this respect.

-John Gardner