Enduring Questions: Why Ask Them?

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by Eric Cook

Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute, once said, “The quality of your life depends upon the quality of the questions you ask.” Think of the enduring questions that have emerged from Western civilization over the last few thousand years: Is man free? Does God exist? What is the nature of the universe? How do we know truth? What is art? Does man have a soul? What type of government is best? Many schools have simply stopped asking questions like this. Such questions are too controversial and, many would say, not very practical. After all, there do not appear to be any clear answers to these questions, so why ask them? That is actually a good question—a question that may just add to the quality and enjoyment of your life!

There are at least three very good reasons, particularly for educators, to ask enduring questions. However, I will first define what I mean by an enduring question. What makes a question enduring is its transcendent quality. That is, a question that continues to be asked again and again, despite ages and sages. It is a really profound or even very simple question that goes beyond human comprehension, but if not asked, would detract from our humanity. Enduring questions are ones that challenge the greatest minds and intrigue the simplest ones (i.e. children). So, why ask them?

  1. We should ask enduring questions because they lead to thoughtful, soul searching reflection about great ideas. A great question generates deep thinking, rethinking, discourse, analysis, debate, and reflection. It challenges presuppositions, creates dilemmas, and requires more precise thinking. Consider the question, “Is man free?” Philosophers have argued for centuries that man is most certainly free and that his innate ability to choose is the essence of what it means to be human. Yet, others argue that man’s freedom is illusory. His life is determined by nature and environment, both of which he cannot control. And to make it even more interesting, those in the Reformed tradition have argued that man is both free and bound, maintaining the belief that God is absolutely sovereign. One cannot enter into a debate over a question like this glibly or passively. Enduring questions force us to think about what it means to be human and reflect upon great ideas that shape who we are.
  2. Enduring questions make life and learning engaging and interesting. I once taught a class in which I turned a quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky into a question, “Is it true that if God does not exist all things are permissible”? Students passionately shared their points of view. Just when they would settle on something in their debate I would throw in another question to keep it going. The question not only served to instruct a particular unit of study, it made the class exciting (and sometimes loud!). Aristotle was right, “All men by nature desire to know.” And because men desire to know, they desire to question. Enduring questions keep our minds active and engaged. They keep us pondering what is most pertinent to our souls and thus keep us active in the pursuit of truth.
  3. Enduring questions lead to more questions. One cannot ask the question, “What is truth?” without considering the question, “By what method do we pursue truth?,” which may lead one to then ask, “Why does a person choose one method as opposed to another when pursuing truth?” Enduring questions are embedded with layers of great ideas. They inevitably require more questions and more careful contemplation.
    “Well,” one may say, “what about answers?” Another good question! I agree with Mortimer Adler, who said, “A mind not agitated by good questions cannot possibly appreciate the significance of even the best answers. It is easy enough to teach the answers parrotwise. But to develop actively inquisitive minds alive with real questions, profound questions–that is another story.” Because a question is enduring does not mean, of course, that there are no right answers. In fact, I am convinced that relativism is largely responsible for the cessation of great question-asking. If everyone is equally right, why bother wrangling over such questions? No, we can answer enduring questions, but if they are the enduring kind, it usually means we cannot answer them fully. If you ask me, “What is the nature of God?” I can tell you He is holy, but that will never fully express the nature of God. Again, enduring questions are transcendent and thus always elicit more contemplation, yielding more increasingly sophisticated answers. If educators do not ask enduring questions school can dull the mind, as Adler says, “by the dead weight of rote learning.” This is true for individuals as well as educators.

If you are interested in improving the quality of your life, consider the quality of the questions you are asking.