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Epilogue: Perhaps Even the Answer Should be a Question

Published onOct 20, 2023
Epilogue: Perhaps Even the Answer Should be a Question

In his contribution to the symposium that produced this little book and that was a simultaneously intellectual and festive celebration of our School of Catholic Theology’s fifteenth anniversary – although attentive readers will have noticed that, if we accept Ernst Hirsch Ballin’s calculation, we should in fact speak of its 225th anniversary –, one of the speakers was painstakingly clear about the urgency of taking the art of asking questions very seriously in our teaching. In fact, Han Somsen states that ‘we are all teaching our students stuff that no longer fits the pressing needs of our times’.

I fear that this might be true to a greater degree than is admitted and recognized in our academic community, and this book may help change that. Many of the contributions in this volume – and Martine Prange’s and Ernst Hirsch Ballin’s very intensely indeed – provide us with good reasons to pay serious heed to the theologians’ ‘call to questioning’. Well-known templates and theories of ‘science-as-usual’ are today being fundamentally challenged, and during our discussions someone rightly warned that ‘Feyerabend is always around the corner’. Many of our courses and textbooks are lagging behind, and the same might well be true for the ways in which we assess and report on the ‘quality’ of our academic programs.

All of this can indeed be problematic. Not that it is wrong to teach practical solutions for the demands of a certain time and age – a dentist naturally must be familiar with new materials to fill cavities, and a lawyer should of course be able to apply elements of European or administrative law. But viewed at a more profound level, the habit of teaching answers seriously denies and undermines the very idea of a university, which should be an institution better equipped to ask new questions than to provide, repeat and train well-known answers. Even if the various schools of our universities educate practitioners, our academically trained practitioners should at least be sui generis.

 To use Donald Schön’s definition in his eponymous book, we should educate ‘reflective practitioners’, trained academics who are able to reflect on both the questions they ask and the answers they propose. In particular, they should have the capability to reflect explicitly on the concepts and contexts that feed, form and fuel the questions they ask. Current and increased complexities and interdependencies are more than sufficient reason to invest further in this kind of authentic academic thinking and questioning.

This symposium was an urgent call to take academic responsibility seriously. Even if well-trained academics are sensitive to the fact that concepts and contexts may also be restrictive frames and tunnel visions, it happens that schools and departments that are devoted to one or more disciplines limit rather than foster curiosity. There is a pun in Dutch on the word for sciences, ‘wetenschappen’, which can be read as neatly putting different kinds of knowledge (‘weten’) in separate shelves (‘schappen’).

 Such scientific balkanization is problematic, both from an academic and from a societal perspective. It is problematic for scholars, as the history of scientific progress reveals that many new insights grew precisely from cross-border curiosity, not to mention the role of serendipity. It is also problematic from a societal perspective, because many of the current and major challenges that humanity is facing in its struggle for survival are utterly complex and cannot be tackled from one angle alone. Most of the tasks that lie before us are multi-problems, related to the discovery of often yet ‘unknown’ interdependencies. Even if we do not worry about nature, and think that it will revive and survive, the fact that our species – alleged to be homo ‘sapiens’ (sic!) – seems to have endangered itself calls for a broad perspective that connects the various academic fields.

That said, the habitus of really and courageously raising questions cannot abide the idea that these questions might be limited a priori by the availability of data that is needed to seek answers, or indeed by the comfort zones of existing academic narratives, fields of study, or theories. However important it may be to follow current standards and protocols in a certain field, this should never blind us to new perspectives. It is perhaps more important to have confidence in scholarly imagination than to trust procedures. Interschool and interdisciplinary occasions, of which this symposium was a short but excellent and promising example, are an invitation to foster such irregular and uncharted strands of imagination. Not so much because they offer answers, but because they provoke intriguing questions. This epilogue can therefore only hope to be a prologue.

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