How an ordinary question can start a beautiful conversation

Last week my colleague Kevin asked our philosophy students a question that has perplexed great thinkers for millennia:

Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?

Here is the discussion that ensued (a group role play exchange channeling Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel):

We talk a lot at LSG about the role of the question: how great questions open up unforgettable discussions, how a worthwhile education means confronting difficult questions, how we can help students form and pursue their own lines of inquiry.

But to be truly open to all the truth and beauty the world has to offer, shouldn’t our students also learn how to make ordinary experiences into material for great insights?

This morning, I read the latest Dear Pepper advice column in the New Yorker, and I realized that a committed truth-seeker and divergent thinker can do beautiful things with almost any question.

The question in the column is just as mundane as our peanut butter inquiry: the advice-seeker shares that her friend’s husband constantly walks around with his fly down, and she wonders how to manage the awkwardness of informing him.

The response is rich and nuanced. Liana Finck points out: such a situation forces one to choose between being a Cassandra, constantly sharing bad news, or a Jonah, who fails to warn Ninevah of God’s impending judgment. She goes on to discuss parenting choices, the gendered implications of obliviousness, and Einstein and Nabokov.

We teachers owe our students great questions and worthwhile texts. But I also want to leave my students with a sense of how to find beauty and truth in the quotidian. I want them to know there are ways of orienting themselves toward one another and the world that can enrich their lives (and the lives of those they touch). I want them to take responsibility for doing that every day, for engaging the possibility that each experience offers them (even mundane questions about zippers).

The morally reprehensible Louis CK nonetheless gave us perhaps the best statement of that responsibility when he talks to his fictional children here:

You live in a great big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of.Even the inside of your own mind is endless, it goes on forever inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.

Showing kids what to do with a question is ultimately about teaching them to be responsible for their own boredom — teaching them to be grateful for all the world offers.