This is the second reflection in a series on questioning and education in response to Matt’s new book.  Cate MacDonald led things off and David J. Gilbert, who teaches in The Academy at Houston Baptist University, continues it here. 

Way back in the earlier days of the 21st century and the second year of my undergraduate career, I had a friend, Salvatore,[1] who made a list of questions. The list grew. A few times here and there he’d find me, check his shoulders, lean in secretly and knowingly whisper, “David, I’ve added to my list….it’s getting good.” So it had 50, now 100, now 150 questions on it.

And all the questions were his preparation for a first date with a girl.

“How many siblings do you have, and are you close?”

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

“Why did you choose your major?”

If my memory serves me correctly, Salvatore had never been on a date before. Or if he had, he still found it quite uncomfortable to summon the first date conversation–I mean, who doesn’t get that? And the anticipation of the date-convo was even worse—I am, of course, entirely sympathetic with Salvatore on this one.

Word has it, the date did not go so well. Word has it, the whole thing felt like an interview. Worse, an interrogation. Word has it, they did not see each other again.

I’ve thought of Salvatore’s list many times since the waning days of 2002. Sometimes I think I should write my own list of questions. Surely my own list of questions would counter the absurdly long quiet spaces that assault me on dates. It should have worked, Salvatore’s list, shouldn’t it have? Questions initiate the work of a conversation, right? So a whole lot of questions should directly proportion a whole lot of good conversations. Right?

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Way back in the earlier days of March of this very year and the third month of my new employment, I found myself pre-reading a popular textbook for high school students which emphasizes the importance of reading great texts and asking questions of those texts. I am a faculty member of The Academy at Houston Baptist University, a classics program for high schoolers. On paper, I should dig this textbook. But for some reason, in practice, the pages just irritated me. And that might be because the questions irritated me.

“What is the conflict set up by Homer in The Iliad?”

“Who was it between and what was it over?”

“In the Greco-Roman understanding of the the[2] universe, is there both a seen world and an unseen world?”

“How is the seen and the unseen world related?”[3]

My mind went back to Salvatore’s date preparation.

Now, in a lot of ways, I don’t want to knock my friend Salvatore, who was, generally, a strong conversationalist. For one thing, in the years since he collected questions for girls, he has gotten married to a wonderful woman; so the dude’s learned a thing or two. For another thing, I think getting in the habit of asking questions is not only a good habit, but sometimes a difficult habit to master. I mean, also, who’s gonna knock a guy for not being simultaneously and immediately good at dialectic and talking to a member of the opposite sex?

It seems that the problem with Salvatore’s list and the textbook’s irritating questions lies in a practical fallacy. In one sense, there’s nothing wrong with any of the questions either listed by Salvatore or the textbook. In a certain way these questions are legitimate and can contribute to a meaningful conversation.

However, there’re also problems with these questions. They feel tired. They feel easy. They feel inauthentic and robotic. They feel boring. They seem in ways to miss the point of questioning in the first place. In Salvatore’s case they feel scripted (because they were), and thus miss the opportunity to really get to know another human being. In the textbook’s case, they lack momentum to begin a real discussion.

I do not think that questions have intrinsic value, the way that people and goodness and truth do. But I do think questions are a major way to get to truth and goodness and relationship. And really good questions strike up really good discussions. And a really good discussion is one that invites interest, and human interaction, and concern about things bigger than our docile, default expectations and beliefs. If there isn’t a genuine curiosity in a dialogue or educational experience, there will be besting the other with one’s prior assumptions and expectations. Sometimes, at best, we’ll pander to what we think the other person wants to say. A really good question is not good in itself, but is good because it is the conduit by which we can peck at the hidden truths of God. And, you know, maybe after a bit, in the later days, we come to have some good answers.


[1] I always call my friend “Salvatore,” because it’s long for “Sal” and I always wanted to call someone “Salvatore” and plus, both are fake names.

[2] This is an actual typo in the text. I leave it because I find the lack of attention to the interrogative sentence indicative of the project as a whole—it’s also typed completely in comic sans. Granted, my evaluation of a given typo depends entirely on the quality of the book at hand. Sometimes, my reaction is loving sorrow paired with willing forgiveness; sometimes my reaction is, instead, lots of judgment. Also, these are actual questions listed in discussing The Iliad. I refrain from any commentary, like the kind my colleague offered when he heard the third question, and exclaimed, “What single Greco-Roman understanding of the universe?!?!!?”

[3] I guess the previous question was answered before publication?

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Posted by Cate MacDonald

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