Can we learn to ask the Big Questions?


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Can we learn to ask the Big Questions?

The “art of reasoning consists in…getting hold of the big ideas and hanging on to them like grim death” William James

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
--Voltaire (1694-1778)

Most citizens think that things are grand when the wheels of commerce keep churning, when they have money to go shopping, and the enemy is kept at bay.

Such thinkers as Emerson, at the dawn of the “American Renaissance”, recognized that society was darting about hither and yon without rhyme or reason. Vocational specialization was in the ascendancy and American Universities were failing in their responsibilities.

The European Renaissance of the Enlightenment and the American Renaissance of Emerson’s era, beginning in the 1880s, shared a common problem—traditional religion with God as a common social value, was failing to provide the bond that both new awakenings required.

The Enlightenment was first to shatter any pretense of a common bond under the umbrella of Christianity. Both periods brought forth a new god—knowledge and discovery. These periods indicated that common values were needed but the common values of knowledge and discovery achieved only individualism without cement that binds individuals. Synthesis and common values were trampled in a drive for independent thinking dedicated toward a pursuit of knowledge.

A need for synthesis became apparent and several attempts were created to meet that need. The Great Books program championed by R. M. Hutchins was one of these attempts for a unity of knowledge that could serve as cement for intellectual endeavors.

Hutchins noted that “If any common program is impossible, if there is no such thing as an education that everybody must have, then we must admit that any community is impossible.” Hutchins surmised that unity of knowledge is a bridge over an abyss of social morality and stated that “We see now that we need more learning, more real learning, for everybody.”

“What makes a conversation great rather than little?” Asks author Ernest Becker in his book “Beyond Alienation”; “it asks the big questions…instead we ask the little questions, the questions that keep our daily work going in its prescribed ruts, the questions that look out for tomorrow by automatically following the routine of the day, by accepting uncritically the world as we find it, and by not caring too strongly what we are really doing in it, or are supposed to be doing.”

Quotes from Beyond Alienation by Ernest Becker