“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” -Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
The questions we ask determine both the quality of information we receive, and how applicable it is to the problem at hand. When I was a teenager, if I was coming home late at night and my mother asked, “Where have you been?” I could answer, “With friends.” This could allow me to answer a simple question with a shallow answer and dart up to my bedroom. If my mother were to ask, “With whom did you go out, and what did you do while you were gone?” I would either have to make up an answer, or tell the truth and live with the consequences.
In our Core History courses at Concordia University Irvine, we stress asking the right questions. We push our students to ask the deeper and more probing questions about our past that allow us to get at meaningful answers. By asking these questions we begin to uncover the truth, and then live with the consequences. In Core History we deal in great questions: What should we believe? How should we be governed? What is the nature of a just society?
Ask any sophomore at Concordia what the “three questions” are and they’ll recite these as they would their phone number. Ask them the answer and, well, you might need to take a seat. Whether it’s the nature of the Greek gods in Hesiod, the Roman Empire in the time of Christ, or the benefits of a feudal system for a Medieval nobleman, the Core History students will be able to answer these questions using examples from great books.
We ask, for instance, why James Madison thought that having well thought out, competing ideas make for a thriving republic. We read from Alexis De Tocqueville why he thought that women in America made us a particularly strong nation. We discuss the fragile nature of humanity in the midst of two World Wars through war poetry and the speeches of Churchill, Hitler, and Roosevelt.
Shallow questions about mere dates and outcomes (When was Theogony written? Why did FDR call America to be the “Arsenal of Democracy”?) will only get the student so far. Asking why Hesiod’s Theogony was written and how it informed the worldview of the ancient Greeks and Romans helps us delve into the mental world of these civilizations, which helped shape our own. Asking questions about FDR’s initially ambivalent stance towards American involvement in World War II can help us understand how twentieth-century American foreign policy has informed our modern presuppositions about our actions in the Middle East and America’s role in the world.
Asking questions that push students to uncover the truth and its consequences for life makes all the difference in understanding our world. Asking the right questions steers students away from a shallow, irrelevant education to a deep investigation of the past that, in turn, enables them to make sense of the modern world and begin to answer its problems.
Daniel van Voorhis is Associate Professor and Chair of History and Political Thought at Concordia University Irvine