A friend of mine likes to tell the story of an art professor whose young daughter asked him where he was going as he got ready for work one morning.
"I'm going to teach grownups how to draw," he said.
"That's funny Daddy," the girl replied. "Did they forget?"
In the same way that we forget how to draw, I believe we forget how to ask questions. Or, to be more precise, we forget how to ask questions that matter to all of us, questions that invite us to share our stories and reflect on our values. We forget how to ask questions that endure throughout human experience, questions that animate the world's great religious and scholarly traditions. We forget how to ask Big Questions and have rich conversations about them, questions like:
- Where do you feel at home?
- What are you thankful for?
- Who is in our community?
- What could we sacrifice to repair the world?
College in particular should be a time when we ask these questions, when we have these conversations with the diverse people in our classrooms and residence halls. But in my years working on a major university campus, I found that, though young adults hunger for these conversations, the university wasn't doing much to help them have them. Their academic courses were great at teaching skills and knowledge and analytic ability, but they weren't good at creating space for reflection. The rich conversations often happened during a random encounter outside the classroom, and often with people from a similar background instead of the diverse population of the student body.
In short, the university did a first-rate job of helping students deconstruct their identities, and a lousy job of helping them put themselves back together.
In 2012, I want to change the world through better conversation. I want to help college students create the space for conversations that matter. I want to help diverse groups of people find commonality by embracing their diversity. I want to help renew and transform campus life, and make the world a better place in the process.
So here's what I'm doing: I lead a national project called Ask Big Questions. We work out of Hillel (www.hillel.org), but we serve students and communities of all backgrounds. In 2011-2012, we have 68 undergraduate fellows working on 13 college campuses to bring people together for these kinds of conversations, and they've already engaged thousands of people. We distribute a "question of the month" conversation guide to a national email list. We're launching an awesome website and media campaign in January. And we work with colleges and universities on their own projects to build better cultures of campus conversation.
Our tagline is "Understand Others. Understand Yourself." It's not rocket science, but it's something essential that we forget how to do: ask questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can answer. Not questions of expertise. Not questions that lead to debate. Those have their place. But we also need to ask questions that lead to conversation and curiosity and wonder and respect.
In 2012 I want to change the world through better conversation.
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