I remember a time when my niece was about five, we took a blanket, went out to the garden late at night in mid-august to watch the Perseids meteor shower. When my sister-in-law came to check up on us an hour later, we were already discussing the origins of black holes. When she asked, wondering: Why are you guys discussing black holes?, all I could answer was: Well, we started out with why the stars are shining, and it just somehow developed….
This childish curiosity is innate to all of us. Most of us remember a time, when we were driving our parents nuts with the twentieth why? to the same question. But if the status quo is unacceptable or the answer unsatisfying, why wouldn’t we keep questioning? How many times did you, as a child, accept the answer because…?
I often find myself wondering, when did we shift from asking, to thinking knowing is a better strategy? When did it become standard, that we sooner question our own competence, than ask a clarifying question? I often hear: I cannot ask… I am the one who organised this meeting. If I ask, that would just make me look incompetent… The most useful thing I learned in the university, was the closing words of my thesis advisor, who said: The more you learn, the more you realise that you know nothing. How right she was. When did the socratic art of inquiry die, which is so essential to learning and growth?
We have the tendency to accept the answers given by authority figures as facts. When an answer is given with certainty, it would just seem inappropriate to question it. The school systems and most organisations are based on rewarding knowing the answer, instead of asking good questions. Good questions generate thinking. Which is the cause and which is the effect? Do we stop asking questions, because to challenge our own thinking is uncomfortable? Or we just stop challenging our thinking, because getting a satisfactory factual answer feels good enough and is comfortable?
Socrates believed in scrutiny and inquiry to bring out the underlying presumptions we all have, regarding our beliefs. The cooperative questioning and argumentation he used in his circles were designed to develop critical thinking. When members of a circle – may that be a school, organisation or simply a group of friends – feel, that asking a question is a sign of incompetence, how do we get to challenge our beliefs and develop critical thinking?