Developing More Curious Minds
by John Barell
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. A Culture of Inquisitiveness
The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young
minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.
—Anatole France (1932, p. 238)
The events of September 11, 2001, have changed the lives of Americans and of people around the world for the foreseeable future. Now we know that we need to keep our eyes and ears open to ensure our safety and security. Part of our new awareness is being alert to those situations that may seem abnormal, perplexing, or full of uncertainty. Such situations usually lead us to ask “Why?” or “What's happening here?” Anatole France saw
youngsters as possessing a “natural curiosity,” and it is this curiosity that can help us become more vigilant as well as lead us toward those personal landscapes of growth that will enhance our lives. And the more our curiosity awakens us to new possibilities, the more we will open our eyes to life in our democracy and see whatever inequities may continue to exist. One of the benefits of inquisitive minds is focusing upon the extent to which our cherished liberties extend to all citizens.
To understand how this book focuses on inquiry, we can examine other events that might have led us to ask a lot of questions. See if you agree that there are similarities among all of these episodes and that they lend an urgency to the contents of this book.
On November 18, 1999, students from Texas A&M were building a three-story structure of timber they had cut down during that September and October. On that terrible Thursday, the log pyramid suddenly collapsed. Twelve Texas A&M students died; 27 more suffered injuries. There was no advance warning, as there seldom is for such a surprise disaster. There was no horrible storm, no tornado, no earthquake to set the assemblage of cut timber tumbling toward collapse.
Immediately, we want to know why this happened and how it could have been prevented. As we answer these probing questions, we encounter conditions that existed not only at this university but also in governmental agencies, in corporate America, and in our schools. What we discover is that our culture in many respects does not value one of humankind's most cherished gifts, the gift that separates us from other living creatures—our
inquisitiveness. Our curiosity about ourselves and the natural world is what helps us develop intellectually and spiritually and provides the fuel for the growth of civilization.
The massive 2,000-log construction at Texas A&M was to have been set on fire just before the traditional football game with archrival the University of Texas, as previous bonfires had been for generations of Aggies. “Bonfire,”
as it was called, would rouse the student body toward victory and would represent the culmination of thousands of hours of work by the undergraduates charged with erecting it.
The president of Texas A&M, Dr. Ray M. Bowen, ordered an investigation, and on May 2, 2000, the Special Commission on the 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire, headed by Leo Linbeck, Jr., as chair, issued its findings (Linbeck, 2000).
For decades, the administration had permitted students to work on Bonfire without proper supervision. “Student
leaders made important design decisions and choices without understanding their impact on structural integrity”
(Linbeck, 2000, p. 27). Indeed, students worked from plans handed down on scraps of paper, and they, the students, lacked proper knowledge of building such immense structures (the log construction was about 80 feet high) and the forces that keep them stable.
Most importantly, the commission noted, “The university has a culture that instills bias and tunnel vision in
decision making. No credible source ever suspected or thought to inquire about structural safety” (p. 37,
Therein lay the problem. No one thought to ask, “Is this safe? Do these students know what they are doing? Why are we encouraging this bonfire in the first place? What are the risk factors, and how can we manage them?” Writing in The New York Times on May 3, 2000, Jim Yardley summed up the commission's report by referring to “an insular university culture that for years had resisted change and discouraged criticism” (p. A16). In other words, those in administrative positions of power did not create a climate or culture that encouraged continual inquiry and self-reflective assessment.
But Texas A&M administrators throughout the school's history were not alone in their failure to create a culture of curiosity throughout the university.
A Question at NATO
In May 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was, according to Steven Lee Myers of The New
York Times (April 17, 2000), “under tremendous pressure to escalate its war against Yugoslavia” (p. A1). In an attempt to bomb Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic into agreeing to withdraw Serbian forces from Kosovo and to provide safe haven for the Kosovars who had fled their homeland under pressure and threats from Serbia, NATO commenced a bombing campaign against the capital city. General Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander, demanded 2,000 targets in Serbia, a number many considered too high for a country the size of Ohio, reports Myers.
NATO enlisted the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which hired an outside consultant, a retired Army officer, to find a suitable target. The CIA designated one target as number 0251WA0017, “a large L-shaped
building located in the Novi Beograd district of Belgrade” (p. A10). It was supposed to be a warehouse. When the CIA submitted its target to NATO, one unnamed officer, who had no authority to review targets, looked at aerial photos of the target and immediately became suspicious. The building didn't look like a warehouse to him. The shape and the grounds made it look like some other kind of structure. According to Myers's account, “At that point he raised his concerns with military officers in Naples, but he did not make his questions official or sound grave enough to remove the target from the list . . . . Then he left work for three days to attend a training session” (p. A10).
No one picked up on this officer's questions, perhaps because it was not his job. Maybe he did not sound serious enough. It is also possible that once the CIA delivered a target, it came with such an aura of authority that no one thought to question it.
For whatever reason, NATO proceeded to bomb the Chinese Embassy, killing several people and ruining U.S.-Chinese relations for months.
A Few O-Rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger
Like many Americans, I can remember where I was on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger
exploded into two hideously white entrails of exhaust smoke billowing out over the Atlantic just seconds after liftoff. I heard NBC's Tom Brokaw describe the tragedy in saddened monotones as I stood in a restaurant at lunchtime.
It wasn't until the panel headed by former Attorney General William Rogers started investigating that some of us discovered that here was another tragedy that could have been averted had enough people heard the concerns of the manufacturer's two primary solid booster rocket engineers. Temperatures at Challenger's launch time were
below freezing, and icicles hung from the booster rocket exhaust funnels. Two engineers, Roger Boisjoly and
Arnie Thompson, questioned whether it was wise to launch at the time. But their questions did not make it up the ranks to NASA officials or were disregarded. It was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman who asked these officials, in open inquiry sessions, if they had approved the launch. They said, “No” (Feynman, 1988, p. 163).
Chris Argyris observes in Overcoming Organizational Defenses (1990) that the Challenger accident is a case
where engineers felt that questioning the managers' reasoning to proceed with the launch was stepping outside their spheres of responsibility. In other words, the engineers who knew most about the booster rockets thought they could question only so far and had no right to know why management proceeded to launch Challenger.
Questioning the thinking of those who make decisions was not part of the culture at NASA. FBI Agent Coleen Rowley
And, finally, we come to the terrible events of September 11 and the possibility of what might have been. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Coleen Rowley did question those in authority. She wrote a memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, raising questions about the bureau's handling of the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who had taken flying lessons in the United States during which he exhibited strange behavior, like focusing on flying in midair and not learning how to land or takeoff. After Moussaoui's arrest on immigration charges on August 17, 2001, and after French intelligence warned the FBI of his alleged ties to al Qaeda, field agents in Minneapolis wanted permission to investigate Moussaoui's computer hard drive. However, officials at FBI headquarters and the Justice Department decided there was not enough evidence for a warrant. Here were dots that might have been connected, but the FBI did not pursue the lead.
“I do find it odd,” Rowley writes in her memo to the director in May of 2002, “that . . . no inquiry whatsoever was
launched of the relevant FBIHQ personnel's actions a long time ago about this case” (Rowley, May 21, 2002, emphasis added).
Realizing that transforming the FBI was a formidable task, New York Senator Charles Schumer asked Rowley before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 6, 2002, “How do you change the culture. . .” of the FBI? Rowley replied, “I go back to the „don't rock the boat, don't ask a question‟ problem.” Any question, she said, might be perceived as a “complaint,” or “as a challenge to somebody higher up and they may get mad or whatever”
(Excerpts . . ., 2002).
Agent Rowley did what so many whistleblowers have done; that is, they raise tough questions about performance and practice. This is not what was done, however, during the financial scandals that rocked corporations like Enron and WorldCom and sent the New York stock market plummeting during the summer of 2002. Executives, accountants, and reporters, by and large, failed to question the operating practices of large corporations and accounting firms like Arthur Andersen. One analyst noted, “You couldn't ask hard questions, because it was viewed as offensive” to Enron executives (Smith, 2002, p. C17). One auditor from Arthur Andersen who did ask probing questions about Enron's JEDI partnerships in 1999 was Carl Bass. Enron complained and Bass responded, “I am not into negotiating with the client over accounting” principles. Subsequently, he was removed from the Enron account (Hamburger, Schmitt, & Wilke, 2002, p. C1).
People who ask “hard questions” too often have been fired because of their challenges to accustomed ways of
thinking and doing business.
In these incidents, we have specific examples of what is occurring in society and in schools: Not enough people are asking questions or voicing their suspicions or apprehensions about policy, practice, and performance.
Feeling Threatened by Questions
One seemingly superficial reason we don't question things is that being questioned about anything often leaves some of us feeling uncomfortable. We are threatened by questions, fearing loss of control of the decision-making process or over the entire situation. I once asked a high school teacher why he seldom posed open-ended questions where students would have to respond with their own ideas. “I'm afraid they'll get out of hand,” he said.
Our egos are sometimes affronted by upstart questions that may reveal weaknesses in our knowledge and performance. One recurring fear that many of us have is that someday the world just might discover just how little we know!
Richard Hofstadter, writing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1966), notes that early in U.S. history, certain
religious groups feared education because it would reduce children's “reverence for parental values and religion”
(p. 126). The same is true today, with some believing that too much learning and too many questions might
parents, teachers, or CEOs. During the latter decades of the undercut and diminish the role of those in authority—
last century, there were folks who thought that the curriculum ought to clearly differentiate between right and wrong. Not much room there for student questions and doubts.
When I have asked college students what facilitates the culture of inquiry in their classes, they often laugh and tell stories of professors saying, “I will determine which questions are worth answering here” or “I ask the questions in this classroom.” Both statements mean that the students' role is to sit quietly, listen, take in the
information, and then someday repeat it in more or less the same form on an answer sheet. Preserving the Status Quo
Another causal factor in hesitating to ask questions is what is exemplified in the Texas A&M situation—the
authority of accumulated tradition: “We've done it this way for all these years, so why change?” I've heard this argument in schools many times. When some of us encounter proposals for change, we respond, “But we've always done it this way.” Fear of change and the unknown are some of our most powerful disincentives to taking
action. We know our routines and we cannot predict or control what might occur if we change them. A different facet of this social conservatism is the “Quigley” factor. Frank McCourt in his novel, Angela's Ashes,
describes his catechism class where one of the boys asked, “What's Sanctifying Grace?” This student was “questioning Quigley,” as the boys called him. Upon hearing these kinds of questions, the good priest went into a tirade about the status of those who ask them:
Never mind what's Sanctifying Grace! That's none of your business. You're here to learn
the catechism and do what you're told. You're not here to be asking questions. There
are too many people wandering the world asking questions and that's what has us in the
state we're in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions, I won't be responsible
for what happens. Do you hear me, Quigley? (p. 118)
Quigley got the message: Do what you're told and preserve the status quo.
Have you ever wondered why certain societies seem to advance more steadily and dramatically than others? Why, for example, does the United States garner so many more Nobel Prizes than other countries? Is it the school system?
Is it something in the nature of how children are raised?
Are there few socially acceptable mechanisms for criticism?
There are probably several possible answers, but one that recently struck me as relating to our discussion came from a renowned climate physicist, Syukuro Manabe, who was born in Japan and spent most of his life working in the United States: “The reason we have difficulty establishing a peer review system has to do with a kind of an
Asian culture. You don't want to speak openly in criticism of someone else's work. It is a kind of a mutual
admiration society, and that has real consequences.” Another scientist, Okamoto Hitoshi, an expert in vertebrate development, notes that in Japanese schools, “Teachers still tell you that eloquence may be silver, but silence is golden” (French, 2001, p. A6).
It is significant that within our American scientific community there are expectations that all reasoning is to be challenged. Part of being a scientist is knowing that whenever you draw conclusions, they are openly questioned. Whenever we read of scientific discoveries or breakthroughs in the newspapers, there is usually a reference to one or more dissenting voices who say, “Wait a minute! We do not necessarily agree with these findings. Here are our questions.” Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that he expected his theories to be questioned because that would bring him and everyone closer to a more accurate understanding of how nature works. Doing and learning in science (and the humanities) are a process of continual questioning, debate, reconsideration, and drawing tentative conclusions from evidence. This is not, however, the way in which we teach it! Our legal system in the United States is built on adversarial confrontations. We do not accept one person's version of what happened. We ask hard questions of all witnesses in order to allow juries to draw their unbiased conclusions about the truth of what may have occurred.
My intent in this book is to break the golden silence of acceptance and allow our inquisitiveness to flourish and begin to mold our entire culture beyond what already exists in our scientific, legal, and media communities. Acting “Like Cattle”
Finally, we can look to ourselves—those of us who gladly accept our subservient roles and do not question. Why? Because we prefer that others make the decisions, thereby absolving us of responsibility. We are more comfortable, says Fyodor Dostoevsky through his Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov(1880/1995, p.
309), being led around “like cattle,” not exercising our free will.
In Escape from Freedom (1941/1995), Erich Fromm provides one perspective on the rise of the Nazis in
Germany and on other authoritarian regimes by observing that some of us willingly submit our wills to that of a superior power. “It seems that nothing is more difficult for the average man to bear than the feeling of not being identified with a larger group” (p. 234). We can see such identifications in our society today, and these
relationships tend to reduce our sense of individual responsibility. We are following a superior group or leader, one we do not question.
Alexis de Tocqueville notes a similar phenomenon in his 1835 masterpiece Democracy in America (1835/2000).
In a democracy with “the principle of equality . . . the human mind would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number” (p. 521). We can argue with his observations of our early democracy, but we do hear the
phrase “the tyranny of the majority,” and just maybe there is truth in his observation that some of us give undue deference to the judgments of the majority. De Tocqueville goes on to observe that some of us do not engage in deep analytic thought because we have a tendency toward “easy success and present enjoyment” (p. 526). We are, in effect, somewhat lazy and driven by other “interests,” namely, the pursuit of wealth.