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February 20, 2019

Ask bold questions to shape the future

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at the Aga Khan University
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at the Aga Khan University

In a poll conducted by the Harvard Business Review, up to 80 per cent of 200 clients revealed that interactions with their children were comprised of questions.

However, only 15-25 per cent of adult interactions were comprised of questions.

This is hardly surprising. We are rewarded for finding answers, not for asking questions. Think about your early days in school. The answer is king. Questions invite scorn.

At the workplace, asking questions could get one into trouble with colleagues or even the boss.

Does society abhor questions? The great American poet E E Cummings wrote, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question”. At the heart of human progress is an indomitable, insatiable quest to know.

The arc of questioning stretches from the primordial simple desire to know the what, to the more complex plane of why and how.

Questions are essentially the tools we deploy to build tunnels into the minefields of hitherto unknown truths or construct the scaffolding to scale the heights of new knowledge.

Questions are searchlights that refine our vision, and clarify where else we need to go.

Asking questions is fading fast as a way of relating to our world.

The Industrial Age and the structures of familial, corporate, religious and state authority have generally not encouraged questions.

Mass education, from primary to tertiary level, is built upon rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of facts delivered through a prescribed syllabus.

Sadly, the primary purpose of education is not to produce skeptical, questioning and thinking citizens.

The high purpose of education in the neoliberal world order is to produce workers, people with skills.

The school is a veritable skills factory.

The capacity to think and ask questions is now a place of high privilege, which most citizens do not aspire to.

The culture and attitude of asking questions is occurring at a period in human history that demands we deal with change and find novel ways of understanding and acting in the world.

The scale and speed of change demand that we learn and unlearn fast. Navigating complexity change and uncertainty while responding to new opportunities through creativity and innovation will not be possible if we stay on the path of passive, compliant and unquestioning engagement with a dynamic world.

The uncertain future must be confronted and conquered through bold questions and audacious experiments.

Our socialisation, and especially how we educate our children, from kindergarten to graduate school, must reinstate the question as the core engine of learning.

Learning must be a search or pursuit through questions.

Education must be a search or pursuit powered by questions. Education must put a premium on how precisely learners can express their ignorance.

Education must be a quest to define, through questions, that which we know not. Education and ultimately our adaptive fitness as a species will depend on the ingenuity of questions.

Our quest for nationhood will be better served by voters who ask politicians questions so they are less likely to fall prey to demagogues and despicable ethnic zealots.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at the Aga Khan University

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