From Now On
Vol 9|No 3|November|1999
by Jamie McKenzie
This article is an excerpt from Jamie McKenzie's new book,
How might this be so?
Questions allow us to make sense of the world. They are the most powerful tools we have for making decisions and solving problems, for inventing, changing and improving our lives as well as the lives of others.
Questioning is central to learning and growing. An unquestioning mind is one condemned to "feeding" on the ideas and solutions of others. An unquestioning mind may have little defense against the data smog so typical of life in this Information Age. An unquestioning mind is like a sloop without a rudder.
In a democratic society, questions empower citizens to challenge and steer authority to do the most good for the most people.
In a fascist society, questions and questioning are viewed with suspicion. They are discouraged unless they stay within "safe" zones such as science and technology.
Questions enable us to make changes in life, to invent new and better ways of doing things. They carve into what has been (the conventional wisdom or way things are "spozed to be") in order to sculpt a new tomorrow. They are the "mindware" that enable us to weigh the value of the other tools, determining the best uses for computers, networks, databases and media.
Life is such a puzzle . . . all those fragments confounding us with thousands of pieces of some huge jigsaw laid out across the oaken table of a summer cottage. Each day we return to the table. We struggle to move the pieces around until some picture emerges, until we discover a pattern or a trend, until we can make sense of nonsense. We wrestle with the information flow and flux. We squint. We frown. We dig. We probe. We sift and sort. We reach into our questioning toolkit and find the right net or lasso or scalpel to bring us closer to some Truth that may serve us well.
The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.
Because the new information landscape is streaming by us at supersonic speeds, we find ourselves working overtime to "get our minds around" the essential issues, trends and data of our times. Making meaning is harder than ever before. Quick fixes, wizards and templates abound as substitutes for deeper understanding, but the ultimate answer to information abundance and degradation is powerful thinking. The better we are at interpreting the data and challenging the assumptions behind them, the greater our chances of handling the riddles, the conundrums and the paradoxes so prevalent.
Supersonic speeds? We open our e-mail and watch a stream of messages flow into out mailboxes, some of them correspondence, some of them spam and many of them information "alerts" we have set in motion by subscribing to many of the services that may be tailored to our interests and needs. Hard to keep up with this torrent.
Coping with Info-Glut and Charlatans
When we turn to our desktops for information, we often find millions of documents within a single "mouseclick.." Are they worth reading? Will they satisfy our curiosity? Cast light on our biggest concerns?
Looking for financial projections? We uncover thousands. Many are by amateurs and those of questionable credentials. Many predictions contradict the augury of others. Divination is widely practiced but poorly supervised. The Greeks may have done better with their omens, with their seers, prophets and soothsayers, but we must "suffer fools" and wade through the fortune telling and visioning of prophets who are unlicensed and unschooled.
How do we sort and sift our way past the charlatans and self anointed frauds of this new electronic marketplace? How do we protect ourselves from the fraudulent and the deceitful? For those who work in schools, how do we raise young people to find their way through this maze?
Powerful questioning is the answer.
Powerful questioning leads to Information Power - the ability to fashion solutions, decisions and plans that are original, cogent and effective.
When we come to a Web page or online article, we immediately ask who put it there and whether their ideas can be trusted. We might also challenge the author of a book. What is their background? their experience? their bias? their funding? their track record? their reputation?
None of us can be expert in everything. We must rely to some extent upon others to help us interpret the world, but we must also be wary of "experts" lacking in wisdom, discretion or reliability. We cannot take the time to conduct original, primary source research each time we look for good ideas. We must turn to the sages.
Prior to the Internet, "experts" usually had to pay dues and win various licenses or credentials. It was difficult to win air time without passing through some kind of scrutiny or review.
The Internet has made the life of charlatans much easier. We find Web sites proudly dispensing hogwash and blather of the worst kind . . . history that is not history and medicine that is not medicine.
We open e-mail stock tips from spammers who are paid to recommend securities. We visit search engines and directories that spotlight information that has paid for shelf space. In the 1950s, this was called payola and thought of as bribery. At the turn of this century it is a simple fact of e-commerce that advice is often tainted by conflicts of interests and inappropriate partnerships.
Matters of Definition
Why have we allowed vendors and merchants to misappropriate the word "technology," applying it primarily to tools that plug into the wall and operate on electrical power? Why do we create a special subject area in schools separate from the real classrooms and call it "technology?" Why do we set up skills lists, tests and outcome statements that encourage the use of electronic tools apart from curriculum content?
How can anyone justify spreadsheeting away from real questions as a worthwhile endeavor? or PowerPointing? or Interneting?
Yet we see this trendy approach to information and to learning sweeping through schools and towns with little opposition or concern. Being good at technology, we are assured, is crucial if we wish a comfortable future for our children.
Definitions help to sell product. They carve out territory. They help to establish turf. They focus the spotlight. They shape budgets and priorities.
Matters of Priority and Quality
Even though print books are technologies - information delivery systems with distinct advantages over some of their new, electronic relatives - they have been pushed aside in some places (along with libraries and librarians) by the information Gold Rush, and they have been relegated to basement status. Even though much of the new information is of inferior quality, the glitz, the glamour, the ratings and the profits go to the electronic sources.
"The Nation: Encyclopedia Green; The High Road at a High Cost." by Edward Wyatt, New York Times, October 24, 1999, article
Traditional publishers such as Encyclopedia Britannica are threatened with extinction, according to this New York Times article as they find the online world and software companies offering electronic encyclopedias of far lesser scholarship at bargain (often bundled) rates.
The creation of scholarly encyclopedias is costly and unlikely to continue, according to this article, as the commoditization of information moves forward relentlessly.
Families too often find the cheaper, substandard, bundled encyclopedia articles quite sufficient for most school reports and family questions. Mind bytes and mind candy abound as the lives of presidents, poets and revolutionaries are reduced to simple paragraphs and formulaic summaries.
Simple Answers to Complex Questions
In all too many cases, the questioning process has been reduced and oversimplified to a search for pre-packaged answers. Artificial intelligence abounds.
Questions are intended to provoke thought and inspire reflection, but all too often the process is short circuited by the simple answer, the quick truth or the appealing placebo.
We know that the most important questions in life defy such formulaic responses and that recipe books require frequent revision in times of rapid change. Strong questioning skills fuel and steer the inventive process required to "cook up" something new. Without such skills, we and our students are prisoners of conventional wisdom and the trend or bandwagon of the day.
Synthesis - the development of new possibilities by modifying and rearranging elements - cannot be managed without analysis, the probing questioning process that explores the underlying principles, characteristics and possibilities of any given situation. Analysis is the underpinning of new thinking and wise choices.
If we hope to see inventive thought infused with critical judgment, questions and questioning must become a priority of schooling and must gain recognition as a supremely important technology. We must lay aside the forked branches of earlier times, the divining rods of soothsayers, technologists and futurists. Rather than reading the entrails or taking the omens to determine the future, we wield powerful questions as tools to construct a future of our own choosing.
Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.