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June 10, 2006 Press Contact: William Harms
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“Education in the Interrogative Mode”

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Below is the prepared transcript of James Chandler's Convocation Address, “Education in the Interrogative Mode.” Chandler is the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke Professor in English Language and Literature, the Committee on the History of Culture, the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies, the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, and the College.

You happy graduates, along with your families and friends, have my heartiest congratulations.  Of course, you will have been here long enough by now to sense that the institution that will be conferring your degree today is a little peculiar.  It is often said in these precincts that this University is distinguished from most others because it has so powerful an idea of itself.  I once thought this sort of talk was just the stuff of local legend, but I’ve learned better since.  It is in fact a view of the place that is widely shared in higher education, well beyond these walls.  But just what is the idea of the University of Chicago?

Each of you, from your experience here, will have your own thoughts on the subject, but you may not have had occasion to put them into words.  A few years ago, for a special faculty report, I was asked to do just that.  Begging your indulgence, I’d like to read a short passage from what I wrote then, in slightly redacted form:

We at the University take pride in our ability to explain ourselves, to give the reasons why we are investigating what we are investigating, and for the manner and means we are using to do so.  The other side of this coin is a conspicuous emphasis on the question as a form of discourse. The University has developed a celebrated — some would say notorious — brand of academic civility. It is a place where one is always in principle allowed to pose the hardest question possible — of a student, a teacher, or a colleague — and feel entitled to expect gratitude rather than resentment for one’s effort. This trait is frequently noted (not always approvingly) by scholars from other institutions who visit us. We have a reputation as a testing site for new arguments. When Max Weber wrote about the scholar’s obsession with devil’s advocacy, he could have been talking about the University of Chicago.

“This dedication to the interrogative mode,” I concluded, “is what makes the place so stressful for those who don’t share its values and so exhilarating for those who do.”

I trust your presence here today means that you do — that you have come to embrace our curious code of civility, and with it, the discipline of overcoming defensiveness in the face of difficult objections, of seeking them rather than fleeing them.  If your education here has gone well, indeed, you will by now have acquired what the ancient rhetoricians called the art of prolepsis.  This is the knack of anticipating possible objections in the course of making your arguments.  If your education has gone well, you will have come to believe that the best work — the best argument, theory, or judgment — is work that takes account of the hardest questions that might be posed against it even before they are raised.

I can imagine that you might yourselves right now be wanting to object that all this attention to the interrogative mode leaves our style of academic culture vulnerable.  You might think it vulnerable, for example, to the invidious boast of other universities that they produce leaders, not scholars — a distinction that is not only invidious but also false, which I’ll try to show in a minute.  Perhaps you also worry that our attention to the interrogative mode is vulnerable to a certain kind of ridicule.  Even if you don’t know Eugene Ionesco’s wonderful absurdist drama, Rhinoceros, you might be conjuring up a figure like “the Professor.”  The play’s existential protagonist, Berenger, finds that the citizens of his town, one by one, are turning into big, horned beasts with leathery skin. Berenger sends for help from various quarters, including from the local university. As soon as the Professor arrives, he proceeds to hold forth at great length on the species-being of the rhinoceros, offering a detailed inquiry into the difference between the one-horned and two-horned varieties.   When he is finally finished, Berenger, points out to the Professor that he doesn’t seem to have given them any helpful advice in solving their urgent problem.  “No I have not,” says the Professor, holding up a finger to the sky as he exits stage right, “but at least now the question is properly posed.”

Our bet here is that the quality of your questions matters a lot, that it matters to how you take on the world,  and that it matters whether you are an astrophysicist or an Assyriologist.  This is the bet on which Steve Levitt wages his considerable intellectual capital in the recent best-seller, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, where he describes economics as “a science with excellent tools for giving answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.” The modern world is indeed knowable in spite of its confusion, Levitt maintains, so long as “the right questions are asked.” But must we not now ask in turn:  what makes a question interesting or right?  What makes a question good?

A good question, one of my colleagues recently told me, is a question to which you don’t know the answer.  At first, this elegant answer seemed to settle the matter.  But then I thought of Carlo Ginzburg, the great Italian historian, and his two-step working method.  Step one is that he thrashes around in the archives until he has a moment of illumination.  Step two, the hard part, is to determine, as precisely as possible, the question to which his insight is the answer.  Ginzburg is a brilliant poser of questions — he famously asked:  What does it mean that a sixteenth-century Italian miller should imagine the world as a large piece of cheese consumed by worms?  But since it turns out he in some sense knows the answers to his questions beforehand, his not knowing them can’t be a necessary condition of their being good.  Nor is “not knowing the answer” a sufficient condition of a good question.  To ask why humans made dinosaurs extinct, rather than the other way around, is to pose a question with so little knowledge of the answer as to be all but worthless.

Suppose we were to say that a good question relates something you know to something you want to find out.  The more you know — that is, the better informed your desire for discovery — the better the question.  But then how does a good question point the way between what is known and what is yet to be known or known in a new way?  There is an element of reason involved, to be sure, and, like Ionesco’s Professor, many of us here assembled pride ourselves on our reasoning powers.  But I want to suggest there is another element as well.   Let’s call it imagination, or what John Keats, when he was about the age of most of you,  called “negative capability.”

This is where the poets have something to teach us all — no matter what our field of interest — for poets seem to be completely at home in the interrogative mode.  They love, for example, to open their poems with questions: 

What happens to a dream deferred?   (Langston Hughes)
What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? (Wilfred Owen)

They love to pose questions along the way, as Elizabeth Bishop does in her searching poem, “Questions of Travel”:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres? . . . .
Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?

And most of all poets love to close their poems with questions:

O chestnut-tree, great rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

That’s William Butler Yeats in his long poem about education:  “Among School Children.”

Keats’s own exemplar of negative capability was Shakespeare, whom he considered the greatest poet in the language.  Can it be a coincidence, I wonder, that Shakespeare begins his own greatest work, Hamlet, with the young protagonist’s interrogating what he calls the “questionable shape” of his father’s ghost?   Or that the play sustains its intensity with questions like the one Hamlet posed of the actor he auditions for his mousetrap (“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?”)?  Or that that most celebrated of questions — to be or not to be — lies at the very heart of the matter?  Hamlet, you might object, was a bit of a dreamer.  But here it is crucial to recall that his questions were not only about the other world.  He intuited that his father’s ghost, rightly questioned, would tell him much about what was rotten in the state of Denmark.  And he famously admonished his friend Horatio that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy.  Hamlet’s questions, you see, helped him to negotiate both worlds.  And though they did not save his life, they did help to release the poison from the system, and they ensured that not only his story would be told by those who survived him, but also that it would be an ennobling story.

In the end, the key thing to understand about good questions is that they open us to the world even as they focus the mind at the same time, which is why the antithesis of scholarship and leadership is so misleading.  Last month, at a national humanities meeting in Philadelphia, I heard an address by an Iowa Congressman — a Republican, as it happens — who made a similar point with a pointed question about questions.  “Is it not likely,” he asked, “that our national leaders would have asked better questions — and thus made better decisions—about Iraq, for instance, if they had seriously pondered the intricate exchanges of the Melian dialogue in Thucidides’ History of the Peloponesian Wars?” 

Here, where Thucidides’ book is still widely read and debated, I suspect many of us will agree with the Congressman, though perhaps not without a further question or two.  The greatest scholars and the greatest leaders must alike be responsive to the best and toughest questions, and they can do this only if they know how to pose them.  It is not enough to have an insight or an intuition.  You must be able to say what question it answers, and why, and what questions it leaves yet to be resolved.  With this unquestionably sound wisdom in mind, then, I encourage you — whatever your discipline, whatever your plans — to go forth and practice, with relish and abandon, the supremely important art that you have begun to master within these walls.
Last modified at 04:24 PM CST on Monday, June 12, 2006.

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