Literature, Inquiry, and Freedom

Joseph P. Coulson, PhD, President, The Great Books Foundation

Reading a novel, a short story, or a poem is an act of collaboration. I mean by this that great literature needs a reader’s imagination, experiences, and emotions to fill the blank spaces of the text. Words spark a memory, a feeling, a glimpse of something familiar, and when this happens, we pour our perceptions into the web of words and make the story more than the sum of its parts. It is, in fact, the collaboration of writer, words, and reader that makes the experience of literature so powerful. In the final analysis, books, stories, and poems that are truly great invite the reader’s participation, allowing the reader to extend the picture that the writer began.

Call it a conversation, the relationship between writer and reader, with the text serving as the object of discussion. In this conversation there is a great deal of room for interpretation, and if we widen the circle of our conversation to a classroom or a book group, then the possibilities for rich exchange and deeper understanding of the text are multiplied. We engage in a collaborative search for meaning that has the potential to widen the scope of our perception and unlock new dimensions of a text that previously went unnoticed.

Questions are the fuel of inquiry-based instruction, not so much procedural or factual questions but rather those questions that demand critical thinking or abstract reasoning. Shared Inquiry™, the learning method developed by the Great Books Foundation, uses careful and deliberate questioning to explore multiple levels of meaning in a text, and at the heart of Shared Inquiry is participation for all. We ask teachers to formulate and ask questions that guide an all-inclusive, collaborative search for meaning. Such discussions, we believe, build a field of action for critical thinking skills. This is especially true when the questions asked about a text invite students to participate in an act of exploration or, in more specific terms, allow students to open a range of interpretations that make meaning out of unfamiliar and seemingly inchoate information. Cognitive development depends on this sort of practice, as does skillful social functioning—and we must not forget that the habits of inquiry taken to their ultimate expression make for knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

Consider Shared Inquiry in relation to empathy and social functioning. In the discussion of a novel or a story, questions aimed at character motivation or a character’s psychological condition ask students to form a theory of mind or, in other words, to imagine the specifics of a character’s interior or mental state. Simply put, theory of mind is the ability to make sensible claims about the mental states of others. Any time we consider why so-and-so said or did something that on the surface seems difficult to understand, we are demonstrating our theory of mind capabilities. Trying to understand the mental states of others, the emotions and motivations of others, is a step toward empathy, cooperation, and community. In this way, Shared Inquiry discussion, particularly when it probes motivations, intentions, and psychological perspectives, can assess and cultivate theory of mind capabilities and, within the broader conditions for critical thinking, create an environment where skillful social functioning can be modelled and practiced.

In inquiry-based instruction and especially in Shared Inquiry, everyone at the table or in the circle has the opportunity to participate by sharing knowledge and ways of thinking about the world. This in itself is a liberating experience. Students feel free to share ideas, test speculations, and cite evidence to support their claims. Students enjoy the benefits of the group’s overall effort, promoting a sense of community and common purpose. There is often an egalitarian spirit in such discussions, a freedom to take risks that emerges from the growing respect that everyone feels for all members of the group. When the conversation that initially began between writer, text, and reader moves to a classroom or community forum in this manner, then we see through action that a democratic impulse lives at the heart of Shared Inquiry. Indeed, I have heard some people say at the close of a discussion that “Shared Inquiry is democracy.”

The progress from questioning to collaborative learning, from personal curiosity to cultural understanding, is a movement toward making ourselves and our society whole. Shared Inquiry is, I believe, an important step toward equity and wholeness—participation for all. It is an expression of the democratic impulse, and its emphasis on critical thinking, exploration, and discovery empowers students of all ages to think first for themselves and eventually for the common good.

Coulson’s essay was published in the Washington DC Public Schools Junior Great Books Newsletter.


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