December 20, 2019

A Spirit of Inquiry

Decades have passed, but my memory of one particular moment is still vivid. Rounding the corner of my father’s sheep barn in the early evening darkness, I pulled up short. A full moon, half-hidden by the horizon, was climbing steadily, directly in front of me. From my spot with the sheep barn on the left and a high stack of hay on the right, the visible part of the flaming disk filled the entire horizon at its base and more and more of the sky as it rose. The huge rising moon took charge of me. Thoughts about ordinary concerns fell silent. I stood and watched, lost, as we say, in wonder.

Many of us have memories of moments like this, moments when the majesty, intricacy, mystery, or even ferocity of nature overwhelmed our perceptions. Like the poet Wordsworth, we often sense that these experiences take us beyond everyday understandings of ourselves and our world. We discover that the world around us is bigger than we imagined, and our worries, significance, and powers are smaller than we thought. Surprisingly, although we consider ourselves somehow less and the world around us more, usually these experiences are exhilarating. Wonder transforms us, at least for a particular moment.

Children seem to have easy access to wonder, as any adult who has spent time in nature with children knows well. Whatever the activity — a walk through a park, a view of the night sky in the country, a bicycle ride down a trail, a pause at a quiet bend while canoeing a river — children stand amazed by many things. Moreover, children pass easily from wonder to wondering, from admiration to curiosity. What adult hasn’t fielded barrages of “What is this?” and “Why is that?” from young children? On one hand, children easily experience wonder; on the other, they equally access curiosity and a spirit of inquiry. In children, wonder and inquiry seem like two sides of one coin.

Curiosity is an endearing characteristic in children, but do we admire it in ourselves just as much? After all, even children can be told that “curiosity killed the cat” when their questions become too insistent. Perhaps persistent questioning is even more unsettling when it comes from someone old enough to know not to bother anyone by being curious. Can the spirit of inquiry that comes so easily to children be good for us or those around us?

The story of William Budd and typhoid fever shows the value of inquiry. Budd was a nineteenth-century English country doctor who discovered how to contain the spread of the gastroenteric illness known as typhoid fever. Budd’s experience with the disease was direct. Over the course of several decades, he observed outbreaks of typhoid fever, treated patients, and nearly lost his own life to the disease. Curious to understand how typhoid fever spread between patients, Budd carefully observed the connections between victims, comparing the patterns of contagion to the current medical hypotheses. Eventually, he was able to show that access to clean drinking water helped prevent typhoid fever. While it would be some time before the precise cause of typhoid fever was isolated, Budd’s curiosity and his patient, methodical observations benefited many people.

Perhaps pointing to the value of inquiry in areas of life that are related to science and technology is like preaching to the choir. We are already convinced. Our lives have been dramatically improved by the spirit of inquiry that lies at the heart of science. However, inquiry in science happens at a distance from most of us. We enjoy the outcome, but we do not participate in the process. Can a spirit of inquiry enrich ordinary daily life as well?

Take stories as an example. Everyone loves a good story, and some of us have spent significant parts of our lives helping young people read and understand them. Curiosity about the ending of an exciting story does not need to be taught. Once a storyline has captured our interest, we want to know how things turn out. What needs more prompting is curiosity about other elements of a rich story — elements like the attitudes and values that make characters act in certain ways, the circumstances that shape the characters’ lives, and the ‘takeaway’ connections that readers have to a story. The deeper and wider our curiosity is, the richer our experience of a story will be.

What is true of stories may be true for many areas of life — the deeper and wider our curiosity is, the richer the outcomes can be. Consider an area that we all have in common: learning how people from various cultures and languages can live together. All around the world, we see how easily tension builds when a fear of differences occurs between people with dissimilar backgrounds. Our relationships can be better, even richer if we are not afraid of differences, but instead curious about each other. What we are likely to discover — if we are deeply curious — is that, while we are very different, we are also alike in surprising and wonderful ways.

Curiosity and wonder seem to keep company in life. In children, wonder and a spirit of inquiry may be like two sides of one coin, but wonder is likely to come first. Later, the order is often reversed. The deeper and wider our curiosity is, the more likely we are to stand amazed by the wonder of what we have discovered. Sometimes we first need to be curious to experience wonder in the end.

By Lloyd Den Boer

Lloyd Den Boer is the Dean of Education at The King’s University in Edmonton. He also taught and administrated in elementary and secondary schools in both BC and Alberta.