Living with the Question: The Heart of the Liberal Arts Experience

by Dean of the College Gary Phillips

September 2, 2009

Good morning to the soon-to-be-graduated Wabash men of the class of 2009.  

Welcome to the beginning of the rest of your lives.

The Dean's Breakfast for seniors on Commencement Weekend has been a Wabash College tradition of extending over many decades and many deans. Deans Trippet, Rogge, Shearer, Traina, Powell, McKinney, Herring, Ditzler, and Williams have preceded me. In their day to Wabash men of their era they have used this occasion to say something about the new lives graduates were soon to embark upon post-Wabash and to connect important lessons learned from four or more years of teaching and learning. An underlying assumption for most was that the Wabash liberal arts education you had received would equip you for lives of promise in graduate school, medical school, business or finance or non-profits, the military and the ministry, the classroom and courtroom, as parents or politicians.

In preparing my comments I scoured the records of past addresses: What did previous deans say? I asked: what is important to reflect upon for this time, this place, this senior class? 

Given what some might regard as an unseemly hour, it may be pretentious to imagine that I have something important enough to say that would wake you up.

But what I have learned is that those past presentations reflected something idiosyncratic about the speaker and his way of meditating upon the significance of liberal arts learning at Wabash: for Rogge it was his unshakable commitment to the value of unfettered, principled debate and the encouragement to be skeptical of all unexamined truth claims; for Vic Powel it was a disarmingly wicked sense of humor that challenged students never to permit themselves to be bored; for Don Herring, the ironic North Carolinian bibliophile who has retired from the College but returned this spring to teach the plays of George Bernard Shaw, it was to give consideration to life after the novel’s last page is turned and the book is closed.

How then does one live after the book is finished, the poem ended, the film credits run? In my case, I want to think with you for a few minutes about questions, about living with questions, loving questions at a time when, it seems, the world presents us with a high level of uncertainty about even the most mundane things: When will the economy come back? When will the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq be ended? Am I safe to fly? Will I find a job, a graduate program, an internship to tide me over? Will Social Security and Medicare be around when I retire? Can I pay off my student loans?  

Many of you, I hope, had the opportunity to see the Samuel Bak exhibition that I was fortunate enough to bring to campus this spring. It’s title: “The Art of the Question: The Paintings of Samuel Bak” reflect the essential importance and power of his painting to provoke the basic questions of human life and responsibility lived after the Holocaust of the Jews in the 20th century.  I give privilege to–some might say obsess upon—the question, the importance of asking questions, of living with questions. To be sure, I give answers their due and one does need them, but it is the question I love, the interrogation, the inquiry not simply as an intellective act but as an ethical action by means of which one lives the critical, responsible, effective, humane moral life, the life of a Wabash gentleman.

Yes, I love questions. Always have. Ask any of my students, my colleagues, my children. Better yet, ask my mother who reports that as a child I hounded her constantly with “But why?” “But why?” When she would give me an answer that didn’t satisfy I would press her for betters reasons, reasons that made sense to me. “But why, mom?” I was obnoxious. It was only her final “Because I say so” that silenced me, more out of self-defense than satisfaction. When mothers are cornered with backs up against the wall in that way, it is the prudent son who looks for a way out of conversation, for in fact the conversation has already ended. Maybe you have had such experiences with your mother.

As a child first learning to write, I remember being fascinated with the question mark, that most interesting of punctuation signs. I would draw it repeatedly on the chalk board and in the margins of my Weakly Reader, in the playground dirt and on my grocery bag covered text books. To this day it is my favorite editing sigla: It is still my habit to fill the margins of books, student papers, reports from faculty and memos from the President with question marks.  Think about how we fashion the question mark. A composite of period, exclamation point, and semi-colon, the form of the question mark is a movement that begins in one place, loops away, and comes back near full circle but does not close off, a graphic sign that to my mind mirrors the questioning process itself: you start with an issue, question, concern in one place, query your way around it, leaving yourself open with something that remains unfinished, with more to come. It says “I’m in process of thinking. I am open. I have not arrived yet.”

And what follows? Perhaps another sentence, a statement, even a further question. An isomorphic sign of the very process of inquiry itself, the question mark signals the presence of a thinking person encountering something outside of herself or himself. Just as the question mark is the hardest of punctuation symbols for the hand of a young child to master, the framing of a question – the heart of liberal arts inquiry—is the most difficult intellective act for an adult to hone. One needs practice.

Just as it takes a steady, practiced hand to shape the question mark, it takes an equally focused mind to pose the right question.

All of this leads up to this observation: at the heart of the liberal arts is the question, the act of learning to question, of living with the question as unfinished business, of framing and loving the question. Your Wabash science, social science, humanities and fine arts courses have been about developing the arts of the question. It takes practice, mentoring, and willingness to abide with uncertainty, disequilibrium and lack of closure. This is what close engagement with faculty inside and outside the classroom makes possible. In human terms, excellent liberal arts teaching is about teachers who stand as a question to you, thus demonstrating how for the rest of your life you can become a question to yourselves.
 
Given my fascination with the question, it should come as no surprise were I to confess that one of my favorite TV game shows is Jeapardy where success is measured not by mustering answers but by getting the question right. Getting the question right and getting the right question.

Does anyone recognize the name Alexander Butterfield? The deputy assistant to President Nixon, Butterfield was the person who first disclosed to the nation during the Watergate Hearings that President Nixon taped all of his Oval Office conversations. Butterfield maintained custody of the tapes and the secret recording system. Had it not been for a Senate staffer oft handedly posing the crazy, out-of-rightfield question directly to Butterfield whether or not he knew if the President taped his conversations, the country might never have come to know the truth about Nixon’s illegal activities and history could well have taken a different course.

In short, knowing how to frame the right question at the right time to the right person in the right circumstance can make all the difference in getting at the truth. What you have learned at Wabash from Freshman tutorial to Senior Colloquium is the art of framing the right questions in ways that lead you to discover the truth. The liberal arts, literally the arts of freedom that make men and women free, is a practicum on discerning truth through ongoing face-to-face questioning. It takes continued practice and the stakes are high.

When I think of questions, my mind always turns to the Wachovia Brothers “The Matrix” featuring Thomas Anderson’s (a.k.a. Neo’s) unrelenting preoccupation with the question,….. “What is the Matrix?” Questions proliferate in this movie like rabbits. Which pill to take—the blue or the red? What is reality? Who are we? Where did we come from? Am I awake or asleep? How can we be free? Who will save us? What does it mean to be human? Recall Trinity’s first words to Neo:
It's the question, Neo. It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did. ….What is the Matrix?"

The Matrix is a liberal arts style Wonderland of questions that invites the viewer to ask with Morpheus just how deep the rabbit-hole really does go. Just how far can you, should you, think, question? What are you permitted not to question? To think about? Your Wabash education, I hope, has left you with an appetite to ask at any and all costs “What?”, “Why?”,“When?”, “How?”, Where?”, and “Who?, those six interrogative words, the famous “Five Ws (and one H)” that Rudyard Kipling made memorable in the following way:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
 
Or take the 16th century English Rhetorician Thomas Wilson’s earlier formulation:

Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose:
Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.
 
But well before Kipling and Wilson, the first century BCE rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos, as quoted in pseudo-Augustine's De Rhetoricagave us the six question words (he actually had seven, a sacred number also found in the Hebrew Scriptures) as a way of  analyzing rhetorical expression:
Quis,  quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis.

Posing the question, figuring out what is said and meant. What level of courage must Neo screw up to find the answer to his central question?

As we learn Neo eventually awakens to the desert of the real but not without a substantial cost to body and soul, a veritable life and death exercise, as he struggles to think freely, to frame the question, to test reality: How can you be free? What will the cost be to you? How do you learn to be free and to free others from the assorted matrices that impose unthinking existence upon us?  The Matrix is more than an action film awash in overt and covert religious symbolism, a topic which also interests me; it is visually emblematic of the liberal arts experience of inquiry that tests reality with the stakes being life and death. There is an intimate connection between Neo’s being free (liberalis) and his being free to think. He develops the arts of freedom—the liberal arts—and that makes all the difference for him and for others in his world. Morpheus hounds Neo with the question: are you awake, Neo? Time to wake up? The same question I pose to you, this morning, here, some minutes past 8:00: After four years of studying the arts of freedom at Wabash are you awake? There is precious time awasting as the Machines move against human life. "It's the question that drives us, Neo."   

I am certain that it is the question that has called me to my discipline (Religion) and to the texts I read (Gospels, rabbinic parables, creation narratives, wisdom literature, Holocaust memoirs, Samuel Bak paintings). I have come to understand that the central, abiding issues of moral and religious experience revolve about the hard questions that, if we are honest, beg simple or complex—maybe any—definitive once-and-for –all answers: Why is there suffering? Why do the good and the innocent suffer, and the wicked and guilty prosper, Job’s question? Over the next 24 hours 26,000 children under the age of 10 across the globe will die of starvation, malnutrition, and disease. How is that possible? Why do religion and violence so often make friendly bedfellows? How could German Christians, practicing Christians, Christians who paid the Church tax and who loved their children as fervently as your parents love you, stand idly by or worse actively bring about the deaths of 1.5 million Jewish children in the furnaces?  I have no good explanation, only questions. Every time I go to Washington, DC and visit the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum I leave stunned. The piles of children’s shoes, pictures of medical experiments performed upon children by German scientists educated at the best universities in the world, I don’t understand. Even if I could concoct an explanation, no answer would satisfy. For questions seem more honest, more in touch with the world.

Perhaps, for me, it is the study of religion and theology, that precious liberal arts subject matter that our beloved Bill Placher taught so exceptionally well, that refuses to let the interrogatory give way too quickly the declarative, insists against a closing down of thinking and action, interrupts my daily self-sufficiency and keeps me asking Tolstoy’s haunting question taken from the Confessions: How then should I live?  As one great rabbi puts it, religion “offers answers without obliterating the questions. They become blunted and will not attack you with as much ferocity, but without them the answers would dry up and whither away.…The question is the great religious act. It helps you live great religious truth.” The question is the great liberal arts act. It allows us to live the truth.  "It's the question that drives us, Neo."
 
It is the question that drives us, Wabash men,  in the study of the liberal arts. In The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman writes, "[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression. . . ." This comes about by means of focused inquiry, a skeptical mind that will not rest until it has looked for and at all the evidence, heard the different  sides of an argument, eschews boredom, imagines what’s next once the book is closed. Inquiry is “the putting of a question, an interrogation.”

For it is the question that triggers the critical appetite, the imaginative inquiry, the wonderment of aesthetic appreciation. The question gives rise to moral action, as Tolstoy’s reflection suggests, and so challenges us to a life lived outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves, not self-satisfied, but interrupted, incomplete, left off balance, unsatisfied, ill at ease, circled back toward ourselves but left open.

Has this not happened to you during your four years at Wabash? Has not the question, the impudent, imprudent, surprising, sometimes irritating, interruptive least-when-you-expect-it-at- 8:00 am interrogatory put forward by a Wabash faculty person or a fellow student not evoked a response, interrupted your reverie, or dull headache or hangover? If it hasn’t and you haven’t been made uncomfortable these past four years then you have been cheated – or cheated yourself -- of an education. Lamentably, you have been left to persist in a matrix of uninterrogated assumptions, beliefs, ideology, or moral positions, enslaved not free. It is by way of the question alive in the face-to-face exchange to which you have been invited on the Wabash campus that a human vista opens up, a text comes alive, an experiment takes on new urgency, an artistic moment breaths veracity, a math formula takes your breath away, a common sense reveals enduring truth. The disturbance and satisfaction of the interrogatory. Remember this above all else about your Wabash experience.

I have spoken this morning about the question and its deep connection to the Wabash liberal arts experience. I have reminded you of the weightiness of the interrogatory and the hard work of thinking critically. I have drawn attention to the cost entailed by pursuing the arts of freedom. I have even proposed “The Matrix” as thematically representative of the best of what liberal learning does. Even more, I’ve gone out on a limb to suggest that the very nature of religious life is about living with questions because answers, as important as they are, offer little permanent solace. To live with and in the mode of the question requires courage and a disposition that is sometimes off-putting to those who would rather not be disturbed.  I now want to conclude on a slightly different note, to shift to a grammatically different mode, namely that of the hortatory, the linguistic form that communicates encouragement and advice.

In 1903 the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and a 19 year old young military student named Franz Xavier Kappus began a correspondence about the young man’s efforts to write. The young man was riven with great self-doubt about his writing and thinking, about his capacity to produce good poetry. Rilke responded out of a generosity, care and critique – characteristics I associate with Wabash teaching and learning -- as much to his personal self-questioning as to the quality of his poetic output. Kappus was unsettled, disturbed by his own questions to which Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet responded:
 
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
 
The most and perhaps the best young Kappus can do is to love the question and live with the question. Waiting.
 
What Wabash faculty member has been Rilke to you? What poetry, literally or figuratively, have you found help to write? How has your humanity been touched by a questioner and a question in this place? What questions do you now love and live with in anticipation? What lies ahead in a future, like the question mark, that stands open? What unknown, uncertain, perhaps dangerous future awaits?
 
From his prison cell the martyred Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in jail for his role in attempting to bring down the Hitler regime and to end the Holocaust of the Jews, wrote just days before his execution: “The only thing I am clear about at the moment is that education which breaks down in face of danger is not education at all. A liberal arts education which will not enable us to face danger and death does not deserve the name” (Prisoner for God. Letters and Papers fromPrison, 95).

Liberal arts education, by Bonhoeffer’s definition, equips you and me to engage danger and death in the world, not to hide from it; to tackle life/death issues not dodge them; to go to the aid of the innocent and those subject to injustice, and to defend them. Such is credible liberal arts education, a Wabash education, that makes a difference for others, that holds us to a higher standard.
           
 On this final note the Matrix speaks yet again. Recall Neo’s final communiqué: “I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to show you a world without boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you." Your Wabash education leaves you with the question and the love of the question. What is now possible for you? In good Wabash style, you must decide.
 
Congratulations, Wabash men, on completing your liberal arts course of study. Welcome to the world of the real.

 


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