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Good Questions

By James Ryan on May 26, 2016 3:50 PM
Dean James Ryan's prepared remarks at the 2016 HGSE Presentation of Diplomas and Certificates.

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends.  Congratulations to you all.

Before we begin, I would like to pause to remember Yan Yang, a beloved member of our community who passed away this year. I ask that we take a moment of silence in honor of her life.

I’d like to begin by thanking all of the families and friends in the audience today. I’ve been touched by your stories over the past few days and to learn about the distances and obstacles you overcame to be here.  I share your pride in the accomplishments of our graduating students and your joy at the prospects that lie ahead. At the same time, I share in the gratitude that I know our graduating students feel toward all of you. 

As you all know, and as I have said before, no one makes it to graduation alone.  For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to those who helped you on this journey.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout this year to help all of us, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you all. They are the heart and soul of this place, and they deserve a huge round of applause.

Last but not least, I would like to thank the faculty, who have served not simply as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends, and I would like give special thanks to Bob Kegan, a pillar of this community and a giant in the field of adult development.  He is retiring this year, and we will miss his wisdom, his grace, and his kindness.

We will soon hand out diplomas to our graduating students, but first I will deliver a short 60-70 minute speech. This is my third graduation speech, if you don’t count the one I gave in high school. And I would ask as a favor that you don’t count the speech I gave in high school. My first year as dean I gave a speech about time. Last year, I talked about sin. When people started asking me what I would talk about this year, I usually just replied: That’s a good question. And then I finally realized:That’s a lame answer, but it’s also a great topic for a speech. So today, I’d like to talk with you about the beauty and power of good questions. To be specific, the title of my speech is “Three suggestions about asking and hearing good questions, including five examples of essential questions plus a bonus question at the end, the correct answer to which is ‘I did.’” Next year I plan to talk about the importance of using good titles for speeches.

Before we get to the question phase of this talk, I would like to say a few words about this year. This has been an eventful, maddening, beautiful, tragic, uproarious, joyous, and hilarious year both within HGSE and outside of it, which is to say that is has been another year in all of our lives. We began the year at HGSE by singing and dancing with Deborah Jewell-Sherman and by listening to the inimitable and inspiring Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. We welcomed the first cohort of Harvard Teaching Fellows, and we also welcomed and learned from Elizabeth Warren, Sandra Boynton, Drew Faust and her brother Donald, Deval Patrick, and Landon Patterson, a transgender homecoming queen and a truly courageous student. We didn’t exactly welcome bed bugs, but they came to Larsen Hall anyway and proved somewhat reluctant to leave. We walked a few steps closer toward fulfilling the promise of diversity, while at the same time appreciating even more that this is a long journey. All of you, our students, were as active and inspiring as ever, inside the classroom and outside of it, on campus and off. You organized a workshop on undoing racism, the Student Research Conference, the Alumni of Color Conference, the China Education Symposium, the Latin America Education Forum Conference, the How Are You? Campaign, the Let’s Talk Conference, the HGSE running club, and a field day, complete with a wicked good kickball game. You traveled around the world to learn and to serve, from Haiti to Egypt to Singapore, and, closer to home, you touched our hearts with your stories at Double Take, you feasted on the mashed potato bar in Gutman and you washed it all down with roughly 372 gallons of free coffee.

Outside of Appian Way, we have witnessed a truly bizarre and unsettling political season. We bid farewell to the likes of Prince, Harper Lee, Antonin Scalia, and David Bowie. We witnessed student protests across the country and across Harvard. We applauded the compassion of individuals like Isiah Britt, a 7-year old from Virginia who raised $10,000 for elementary schools in Flint, Michigan so they would have clean water to drink. And let’s just say we had mixed feelings about the various rulings on Tom Brady’s role in deflategate. Go Giants.

You may be worried about the world that you are about to re-enter. And I’m here to tell you: That’s not a bad idea. (Can I have some applause for that?) In all seriousness, disparities and injustices based on income, wealth and race continue to weaken the fabric of our world, our nation and of our communities. Intolerance and authoritarianism appear, by some measures, on the rise both at home and abroad. Our world seems to be getting hotter and less hospitable, both politically and environmentally, though it was truly heartening to learn that, as of this year, the lovable manatee is no longer an endangered species. Redemption, it seems, is still possible.

By coming to HGSE, you have signaled that your response to societal inequities and injustices is through education. I’m surely biased, but I applaud your choice, as I am convinced that education is the only long-term solution to these long-term problems. For that reason, I believe that you are the luckiest graduates in the entire university, because you are going to work in education, and there is no higher calling, no more rewarding or meaningful field in which to work. I hope and trust you feel prepared and inspired for the tasks that lie ahead. I have seen your passion, your commitment to social justice, and your enormous talents on display all year, and while I am sad to bid you farewell, I take solace in knowing that you are leaving here to make the world a better place.

In short, you are all going to rock. I know I said this last year, but this year I really mean it. Whether you are graduating from our Ed.D. Program, our Ed.L.D. Program, or our master's and C.A.S. programs, you are all, collectively and individually, going to rock.  I’m sure of it.

Ok, any questions so far? No? Clearly we have some work to do on the importance of good questions.

As my title suggests, I have three suggestions for you in this regard.

The first suggestion is that you cultivate the art of asking good questions. 

With your newly minted Harvard degree, you might think you are now expected to have all of the answers, and others might think the same, including especially those family members who financially contributed to your education here. More broadly, it’s obvious that we live in a world where people both want instant answers and are ready to offer answers (and judgments) at a moment’s notice. Indeed, this tendency defines too much of our public discourse, which is disturbingly shallow for just this reason.

I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask. The simple truth is that an answer can only be as good as the question asked. I know this from experience.

The scene was Charlottesville, Virginia, 1990, at a UVA law school dance. I had finally mustered the courage to introduce myself Katie Homer, a fellow law student on whom I had a crush.  But I made two mistakes. First, I decided to introduce myself while Katie was dancing with someone else. (Please don’t ask me why, though that would be a good question). The second and more important mistake is that I lost my nerve at the last minute, and instead of introducing myself to Katie, I introduced myself to her dance partner, whom I’ll call Norman: I asked, quite loudly so I could be heard over the music: “Are you Norman Huckelby, by any chance? I ask because I think we’re in civil procedure class together and I’ve really admired your contributions to class discussion.” (All I can say is please don’t judge me.)  In any event, Norman cheerfully answered: “I sure am, and thanks!” 

Now, given the question I asked, that was a perfectly appropriate answer. But it was still the wrong answer. The right answer was “I’m Katie Homer, it’s so nice to meet you, and yes, I actually would like to marry you.” But without asking the right question, I couldn’t hope to get the right answer. Luckily for me, Katie understood the real question I was trying to ask, which may explain why we are married today, rather than Norman and I. Raises another point.

Posing good questions is harder than it might seem, and I say this not simply by way of explaining why I asked the wrong question at the dance. It’s hard because asking good questions requires you to see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the difficult, the tricky, the mysterious, the awkward, and sometimes the painful. But I suspect that you and your listeners will be richer for the effort, and that this will be in both your professional and your personal life.

For those who will be teachers, for example, you know that well-posed questions make knowledge come to life and create the spark that lights the flame of curiosity. And there is no greater gift to bestow on students than the gift of curiosity. For those who will be leaders, which is to say all of you, don’t worry about having all the answers. Great leaders don’t have all the answers, but they know how to ask the right questions — questions that force others and themselves to move past old and tired answers, questions that open up possibilities that, before the question, went unseen. 

For those of you who will be researchers and innovators, remember this observation of Jonas Salk, who discovered and developed the vaccine for polio: “What people think of as the moment of discovery,” he observed, “is really the discovery of the question.” It takes time and work to discover the question. Einstein famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on it, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.

Asking good questions will be just as rewarding in your personal life. Good friends, as you know, ask great questions, as do good parents. They pose questions that, just in the asking, show how much they know and care about you. They ask questions that make you pause, that make you think, that provoke honesty, and that invite a deeper connection. They ask questions that don’t so much demand an answer as prove irresistible. My simple point is that posing irresistible questions is an art worth cultivating.

Stressing the importance of asking good questions implies that there are bad questions, which brings me to my second suggestion. It is a cliché to say that there is no such thing as a bad question. That is actually false, but only partially so. There are plenty of questions that are bad at first glance — as in “are you Norman Huckelby?” Whether these questions remain bad, however, often depends on the listener. And the suggestion I want to make is that you, as listeners, have within you the power to turn most bad questions into good ones, provided that you listen carefully and generously.

To be sure, you will come across some questions that are beyond repair, but many that seem bad at first glance are actually good questions, or at least innocent ones that are dressed in awkward clothing. To help you see this, I’d like to give you a short quiz, or, as they say today, a formative assessment. I will tell two stories, both true, and your task is to identify what’s different about them.

Shortly after I arrived on the Yale campus as a college freshman, I struck up a conversation with a female classmate. (Yale is important to the next story, by the way, and not just my way of trying to slip that into my talk. It’s not like gratuitously saying “Boola boola.” Boola-boola.) In any event, it was a lively and easy conversation, and after about 20 minutes, my classmate paused and said: “Can I ask you a question?” And I thought to myself: “This is incredible! Two days into college, and I’m about to be asked out on a date!” 

Now, before I tell you the question she actually asked, I should tell you that at this point in my life I was roughly five feet, three inches tall — a good six inches shorter than the hulking 5 foot 9 inch frame that stands before you today. Perhaps more relevant, puberty was, to me, still a hypothetical concept.  In short, so to speak, I looked like I was about 12 or 13 years old. So back to the question. My hoped for date said, “um, I’m not sure how best to ask this, but are you one of those, you know, child prodigies?”

Funny for you, maybe.

Now, contrast that to a question my mother was asked, about two months after my child prodigy conversation. I grew up in a tiny town in northern New Jersey called Midland Park; it was a blue-collar town, filled with plumbers, electricians, and landscapers. It was surrounded by wealthier suburbs, whose homeowners employed the plumbers, electricians and landscapers from Midland Park. Our grocery store, the A&P, was on the border of Midland Park and a wealthy neighboring town. As my mother was putting groceries in her car, a particularly well-coiffed woman came over and asked my mom if she was from Midland Park. After my mom told her yes, the woman pointed to the Yale sticker on the back windshield of my parent’s car. And she asked: “I don’t mean to pry but I’m just so curious: was that Yale sticker on the car when you bought it?” 

You see the difference between the two questions, right? The first one was innocent, which I ultimately recognized once I got over feeling embarrassed and finally hit puberty just a few, agonizingly long, years later. The second question was hostile — it wasn’t even a question, really. It was an insult.   

You will get, if you haven’t already, some hostile questions in your life — some from strangers, others from colleagues or supervisors or parents or school board members or even from students. The trick is to distinguish the hostile ones from the genuine but clumsy ones, because the clumsy question might really be the questioner’s way of asking to get to know you better or could just be motivated by a mixture of anxiety and ignorance. And to close the loop here, the only truly bad questions are not really questions at all — they are statements meant to be demeaning or designed to trip you up that are disguised as questions. Beware of those, denounce them or ignore them as the occasion demands, but let your heart, ears, and mind remain open to all others.

My final suggestion is that there are five truly essential questions that you should regularly ask yourself and others. My claim is that, if you get in the habit of asking these questions, you have a very good chance of being both successful and happy, and you will be in a good position to answer “I did” to the bonus question at the end.

The first is a question my own kids are fond of asking, and it’s one you may have heard other teenagers pose — or maybe you still pose it yourself. The question is “Wait, what?” My kids typically pose this question when I get to the point in a conversation where I’m asking them to do a chore or two. From their perspective, they hear me saying something like: “blah, blah, blah, blah, and then I’d like you to clean your room.” And at that precise moment, the question inevitably comes: “Wait, what? Clean what?”

“Wait what” is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding. It’s the question you should ask before drawing conclusions or before making a decision.  The Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, gave a great master class this year, where he emphasized the importance of inquiry before advocacy. It’s important to understand an idea before you advocate for or against it. The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.

The second question is “I wonder” which can be followed by “why” or “if.”  So: I wonder why, or I wonder if. Asking “I wonder why” is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking “I wonder if” is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world. As in, I wonder why our schools are so segregated, and I wonder if we could change this? Or I wonder why students often seem bored in school, and I wonder if we could make their classes more engaging? 

The third question is: "Couldn’t we at least...?" This is the question to ask that will enable you to get unstuck, as they say. It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about strategy? It’s also a way to get started when you’re not entirely sure where you will finish, as in couldn’t we at least begin by making sure that all kids have the chance to come to school healthy and well-fed?

The fourth question is: “How can I help?” You are at HGSE, I presume, because you are interested in helping others. But you also know, from your time here, to be aware of the savior complex, of the stance where you are the expert or hero who swoops in to save others. We shouldn’t let the real pitfalls of the savior complex extinguish one of the most humane instincts there is — the instinct to lend a hand. But how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask “how” you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction. And you are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and that they will likely help you as much as you help them.

The fifth question is this: "What truly matters?" You can tack on “to me” as appropriate. This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions. Indeed, it’s a question that you might add to, or substitute for, New Year’s resolutions. You might ask yourself, in other words, at least every new year: what truly matters to me?

So these are the five essential questions. “Wait, what” is at the root of all understanding. “I wonder” is at the heart of all curiosity. “Couldn’t we at least” is the beginning of all progress. “How can I help” is at the base of all good relationships. And “what really matters” gets you to the heart of life. If you ask these questions regularly, especially the last one, you will be in a great position to answer the bonus question, which is, at the end of the day, the most important question you’ll ever face.

This bonus question is posed in many ways, and you have surely heard a version of it before. To me, the single best phrasing of this question is in a poem by Raymond Carver, called “Late Fragments.” It’s one of the last poems he wrote. I came across it recently on the very sad occasion of a memorial service for one of my dearest and closest friends, my former law school roommate Doug Kendall, who died in September at the far too young age of 51. The poem was printed on the back of the program for his memorial and it starts with this question, what I’m calling the bonus question:

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”

The “even so” part of this, to me, captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life, but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment.

My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”

 So the poem asks “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” and then continues: 

“I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved. To feel beloved on the earth.”

The word "beloved" is important here as it not only means dearly loved, but also cherished and respected. And while I promise I’m very near the end of my speech, let me just say that when I read these lines, it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time, here and elsewhere, thinking about how we might improve student performance, which is how it should be. Yet I can’t help but think that schools, and indeed, the world, would be better places if students didn’t simply perform well but also felt beloved — beloved by their teachers and by their fellow classmates.   

To tie this all together into one slightly misshapen package, and to bid you a final farewell: As you leave Appian Way and head into a world that desperately needs you, let me express my sincere hope and belief that: if you never stop asking and listening for good questions, you will feel beloved on this earth, and, just as importantly, you will help others, especially students, feel the same.