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It is inquisitiveness that best defines what we humans are all about. We ask endless questions, the answers to which often beg still further questions. From the darting, curious, eyes of a baby only a few weeks old, to the growing child’s persistent questioning of ‘tell me why/what/when/where/how/who’ we embark on a life time’s search to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. It’s curiosity that drives brain growth.
It’s more important to ask good questions than it is to ‘know’ the right answers. The better the question the more likely it is that the individual is close to finding out the answer for himself. Good parents sense this, and good teachers know when instruction needs to stop so that the child, by finally working out how all the pieces come together, experiences the excitement of discovery – the ‘eureka’ moment. At whatever age, we all learn best when we have ample opportunity to work things out for ourselves, however tentative our initial conclusions may be. Einstein understood this tension between learning and teaching when he expressed the fear that modern methods of instruction might ‘strangle the holy curiosity of enquiry, for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.’
It is through asking our own questions that we construct knowledge, and we do this best when we are able to meander – or to browse; to set off with a general goal but with plenty of opportunity to stop on the way, and to explore alternative routes. A romantic dream? Not really. It’s the way our brains work for, until no more than seven or eight generations back, that was exactly how all our ancestors from the beginning of time had lived. It was the speed of walking, some two or three miles an hour, that set both the pace and the way in which we learn. We rarely go in a straight line, we rarely focus on a single topic, and we are always looking to see what new opportunities may be around the next corner. One question always stimulates another.
We don’t become knowledgeable simply on our own, but mainly through close interaction with other people. We certainly don’t seek the isolation of the sea eagle. Neither for us the army mentality of the ant, nor the herd mentality of the buffalo, nor even the flocking of the swallows1. It is our brains that give us our ability to communicate and share abstract ideas, and in so doing we have learnt how to create community. We have evolved complex family and social structures which balance male and female skills in ways which give us an enhanced capability to bring up our offspring. Left to our own devices we self-organize within small groups to achieve what an individual alone could never do. We endlessly imitate people we respect. We seek out and relish help from others in solving immediate and long-term problems.
With all this recent knowledge about our brains, we are only just now able to draw these pieces together and to see our species for what it really is – Ice Age hunters only partially evolved towards being intelligent; a clever species which has constantly to struggle to become wise enough for its own good. Think how our less-evolved ancestors of half a million years ago would envy us the ability that is now in our brains! And yet, we have the opportunity to be clever only because of what the experience of our countless ancestors has bequeathed to us through the structures of the human brain.
It’s why asking questions is so very important, for with every technological breakthrough the social status is further thrown into the melting pot. Change becomes the constant. “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists”2. To survive we have to be inquisitive, and we have to act collaboratively. It has been said that we start life as a question mark; if we cease being inquisitive, our lives end as full stops.
Thesis 6: 24th August 2006