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Why Shared Inquiry Matters Now, More Than Ever

How optimistic about the future are you? Are you confident that we humans can work together to solve the immense political, social, environmental and economic problems we face?

When the problems around us are so daunting, it’s tempting to become overwhelmed or become nostalgic for “better” times. But turning our backs on problems because we fear their complexity won’t solve them or make them go away. When we don’t work on them together, we lose the opportunity to grow, to gain new understanding, and to find solutions that truly address our individual and collective needs.

Despite fears that our country is hopelessly divided, most days I am able to remain hopeful about our future. Why? Through my work with the Shared Inquiry method, I have regularly seen people of differing backgrounds and beliefs productively exchange ideas and learn from one another. I’ve seen students move from angry withdrawal to engagement with issues and their peers. Adults regularly exclaim, “Ah! I hadn’t thought of that!” People of all ages and in different settings see both short and long-term benefits. Developed by the Great Books Foundation, this method of learning through discussion offers a structure for exploring complex human issues, such as the nature of friendship or justice, or the limits of freedom, in a spirit of open-mindedness.

How does this work? In Shared Inquiry, people read and discuss open-ended questions about great written works. By starting with a text, we consider big, enduring questions through the lens of a particular character, author or time period and then think about how our insights apply to our own lives. For example, What did the authors of the Declaration of Independence mean by “all men are created equal?”  What if my pursuit of liberty interferes with yours? What did M.L. King, Jr. mean by a “just law?How do we balance justice and freedom?

The “shared,” or collaborative, element of this method, involves more than just learning to express one’s own ideas clearly and confidently in a group. Because there are many possible answers to the questions posed, participants learn to slow down and really listen to one another. When we ask for clarification before we assume we understand, when we respect that others have ideas worth sharing, we may benefit substantially from their life experiences and wisdom. Though we may still disagree, this practice of really listening builds an openness that helps us refine our own thinking, and, at the very least, prepares us for how others may respond to our ideas. Often, we develop new ways of framing or responding to the whole issue.

Becoming skilled at “inquiry” means tolerating – and even embracing – uncertainty when problem-solving. A culture of inquiry values asking genuine questions, and then using evidence and reasoning to assess the validity of possible answers. Shared Inquiry involves regularly exploring open questions, where more than one interpretation or solution is valid, and thus builds our capacity to tackle life’s many complex challenges.

Open, civil discourse and free speech are at the foundation of democracy and a vibrant culture because they help us reach our mutual goal of living good lives. Collaboration, critical and creative thinking are also means to this end, and are at the core of all the arts, sciences, and humanities. Historically, they have enabled humans to innovate and adapt, personally and collectively. While Shared Inquiry discussion is a microcosm of the problem-solving situations that take place in the larger world, my experience has shown that people of different backgrounds, political, and philosophical beliefs can talk with and listen to one another—and enjoy the experience! Now, more than ever, Shared Inquiry serves as a model for addressing our greatest challenges by showing us the value of asking questions and working together.

Denise D. Ahlquist – Jan. 25, 2017

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