Another day I was dispensing current affairs stuff for my year 13s to analyse when one of them spotted that document was recent. From last week, in fact. In a moment of head-clutching revelation he demanded ‘Do you read up-to-date stuff?’. As a theologian there’s always the risk that I won’t have truck with anything after Augustine of Hippo, but actually, yes, I do. And what’s more, matey, next lesson I’ve got something hot off the press from the Bishop of Sheffield (whose daughters I taught) which opens up the established church to good sense and justice on sexuality. We can all question how that might go.
I last wrote about questions in about 2014, I think. I was remarking on the tendency of posh people to interrogate one so that they can find common ground to pin you down upon. I’ve assumed this was so they can run a mile if you prove to be an unsuitable companion. This can’t have been the reasoning behind the palace questioning – so why do it? What kind of good manners pursues a question your guest has already answered, as if it wasn’t true?
We had ourselves a training session on questioning this week. It’s a basic teacherly skill, which, like so many, developed a sheen of rust over lockdown and needs buffing up. We looked at open questions ‘What do you think is the biggest factor in the climate emergency?’, closed questions ‘What is Hamlet doing in Act 4?’, hinge questions ‘So what were the advantages of the Black Death?’, multiple choice questions checking for misconceptions ‘Hands up for a, b, c or d.’ and cold-calling questions ‘Derek, what is the area of this irregular polygon?’. We practised them on each other and undertook to do it better.
I love that stuff. Give me a roomful of people and questions from the floor and there’s no reason why I should ever stop talking, but I’m not so loquacious when the clipboarders shin up the rope ladders. Those are questions to be answered precisely and economically with a pleasant smile and fingers crossed for no devious follow-up.
That’s because questions usually have a power dimension, where the searcher after knowledge and the broker of knowledge have a different roles. Refusing to answer a question can be awkward. Teachers might do it if the they’re faced with a vexatious interlocutor who just wants to avoid tackling the paragraph or is keen to amuse the hordes with impertinence. Anyone might do it if they don’t know the answer: ‘I’ll find out. Leave it with me’ is also part of the teacher’s armoury. But what happens if the questioner just goes on? What happens when you feel uncomfortable, got-at and doubt their motives?
Nick Cave answers questions in The Red Hand Files from time to time. This month he talked about good faith conversations.
A good faith conversation begins with curiosity. It looks for common ground while making room for disagreement. It should be primarily about exchange of thoughts and information rather than instruction, and it affords us, among other things, the great privilege of being wrong; we feel supported in our unknowing and, in the sincere spirit of inquiry, free to move around the sometimes treacherous waters of ideas. A good faith conversation strengthens our better ideas and challenges, and hopefully corrects, our low-quality or unsound ideas.
A good faith conversation understands fundamentally that we are all flawed and prone to the occasional lamentable idea. It understands and sympathises with the common struggle to articulate our place in the world, to make sense of it, and to breathe meaning into it. It can be illuminating, rewarding and of great value - a good faith conversation begins with curiosity, gropes toward awakening and retires in mercy.
The world changes and we all need to learn new ways of being. It behoves us to scrutinise the way we talk to make sure that we can live up to our better selves. I love the idea of groping towards awakening and retiring with mercy. It’ll be a good thing to practise over Christmas.