To ask the right question needs you to recognise the right answer
Grateful to my son, Rev’d Richard Bittleston,
Minister in the United Reform Church,
who gave me good thoughts on this subject
How many generations were raised to answer questions? All of them, of course. Evolution is the result of answers. So it is also the consequence of questions. Deep breathing, whether a discipline of exercise or a struggle to survive, answers the questions ‘What must I do to stay alive?’ and ‘What must I do to remain healthy?’ And a whole host of other questions, too.
Today we understand that better questions produce better answers. Sometimes, best of all, they enliven the minds of the questioners enough to deduce the answers for themselves. This has two benefits. First, it exercises the brain. We recognise the importance of exercise for the body but barely acknowledge how important brain exercise is. Specialists studying dementia and other diseases of the brain encourage those vulnerable to them to keep the mind busy. But a rugby-player’s mind and the mind of a meteorologist may have very different ways of working. What are the questions they should be asking themselves?
Second, it teaches you how to formulate the questions that will both educate you further and make your thinking more self–sufficient. Asking others questions is a good way to learn. Before the internet it was pretty much the only way. Heaving a heavy tome of the Encyclopedia down from the shelf every time you wanted to check a word-spelling was a laborious process. Clicking Google or one of its friends is easy. Even with Google you need to have an idea of the answer to be able to ask the question. How do you do that? What are those questions?
Could it be mainly a matter of fundamentals? If so, do they boil down to ‘purpose’?
‘Purpose’ came to me young. When I was a child I worked on farms – in those days without advanced machinery and hydraulic power. Doing so raised the question of purpose all the time. A farming ‘process’, as we have since seen, is not a way to cultivate the earth. It is a way to destroy it. The end purpose of farming must be sustainability, not for the short term but forever. Without understanding our purpose we lose ourselves in the trivia of ‘doing’. It’s good to ‘do’ but only if you know why. (The spell check finished the sentence ‘…only if you know what to do’. I think it has made the point perfectly! Simple old spell check.)
Millions of attempts have been made to define humankind’s purpose. Prophets have sought to promote the unknown as a purpose. Some people are drawn to this, turning the mystique of faith into something for which they were born and for which they will die. There can be a problem with it – faith requires doubt to make it credible. A purpose involving such doubt could satisfy some. As a conditional answer it may not be rewarding for all.
Power, wealth, control, enjoyment are all credible purposes but fail on the grounds that, alone, they bring only passing, transient happiness and almost no joy. It is difficult to conceive of our own happiness without considering other people’s. Happiness is indeed a good purpose. If accepted as the primary purpose of life then the question is how to achieve it? Possessions provide some delights, but those pall when more than you want are available, and few provide pleasure for more than a fleeting moment. Basic possessions and sustenance certainly avoid the pain of hunger, temperature, exposure, some illnesses and isolation.
Happiness is more of an internal than an external attribute. It comes from appreciation. That may be of a spider climbing a wall it cannot easily scale. It could be a beautiful thought, a stunning sight, a sensation of complete satisfaction, a parachute jump, a playing of the Bruch Violin Concerto – the list is endless. Our ability to appreciate is distorted by the belief that more means better and the implied reverse that less means worse. We must get out of this.
We are in an age when so many people have so much and so many have so little that a primary question must be how do we correct that. Tremendous individual efforts are being made to change the imbalance. Their result is not yet satisfactory.
Whatever else we do, we must educate better for the future and that education must address our purpose first. As my son Richard says to me “Information and reasoning are no more than tools. Education these days gives them the status of gods.”
Education needs a whole new curriculum.
Starting with its purpose.
Please do tell us your views on ‘the education of the future’.
firstname.lastname@example.org is ready for them. Thank you.
19 April 2023