Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"The Perfect Uselessness of Knowing the Answer to the Wrong Question"

"There is really only one question that can be answered," writes Ursula LeGuin in her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, "and we already know the answer . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

Of course, wanting to know what comes next is natural. Humans are inclined to seek out security and predictability, or the illusion of predictability, is one of the ways we seek to assure ourselves that tomorrow will at least be no worse than today. Astrological readings, weather forecasting, and business planning are all efforts to see into the future, hopefully to one that is in some way an improvement on today, but at a minimum one for which we are prepared. The most hopeful or ambitious among us hope to shape that future, to make it fit our dreams in some way.

It can be both stressful and exciting to know that choices we make today will shape the future. All of us some of the time, and some of us much of the time, find ourselves time-traveling into dystopian futures of our own making, but we likewise know that no matter how much we prepare and plan and forecast, it might still go wrong. We try to focus on our hopes, but our fears will have their say.

"Complete certainty, safety, and a life of no fear is impossible," writes Brandon Webb in his book Mastering Fear, "There'll never be a pain in your life where you'll think, 'now's the right time, I'm totally prepared and at ease . . . If you wait for fear to go away first, you'll never do it. Because the fear is never going away."

Studies show that successful people experience as much fear and anxiety as the rest of us, but that they have learned to make decisions about what to believe and do, even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. Or as the philosopher William James has it, "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all."

Perhaps the most obvious warning sign that we are doing it wrong, is that for the past several decades, we've seen an alarming spike in the incidence of anxiety in our youth, including preschoolers. Children as young as three are being diagnosed using the same diagnostic tests that we've been using since at least the middle of the last century. There are many theories about this, but the most persuasive to me is that our schools, even preschools, are becoming increasingly academic and competitive, which is to say future focused in a way that is developmentally harmful to young minds. Instead of living in the now, which is the natural habitat of the young, we try, in our incredible hubris, to peer decades into the future in order to reverse engineer their lives, imposing the onus of college and career readiness on humans who should, by all that is good, be contemplating motes, pretending to be fairies, practicing getting along with others, and asking and answering their own questions, not about the future, but about the world in front of them right now. No wonder they're anxious.

The people in LeGuin's story certain individuals have developed an ability they call Foretelling, which allows certain individuals to know, with certainty, the future. Henry, the stories protagonist, seeks out a Foreteller in order to know what his future holds. The process involves asking a question, the more specific the more accurate the answer will be. Henry, however, is not satisfied with what he learns. "You don't see yet, Henry, why we perfected the practice of Foretelling?" asks the Foreteller, "To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

School has come to be about right and wrong answers -- that's what we test, that's what we grade -- but life is about learning to ask the right questions because the future is always uncertain, it can always go wrong, and it will always be different than the future for which we've forecast or planned. And at the end of the day we are always faced with an uncertain future, which is why the most important thing we can learn is how to ask and answer our own questions, not to be more right than the next guy, but rather to develop the habit of wondering, because whatever else the future holds, our ability to wonder is our bulwark against the permanent, intolerable uncertainty. We will never know what comes next, but it's our curiosity that will make life in the future possible.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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