Headmaster’s Notebook — Inquiry Question

We held our annual Inquiry Day last Monday, during which fifteen seniors presented anywhere from a trimester to a year’s worth of work on projects of their own design. Their guiding questions tell us a good deal about the scale of their ambition: What is race? Can we stop aging? Who lives outside of nation states? What does our brain see? Is there some new significance to the media in the modern context, to clothing styles, to the melting ice caps? Will we travel beyond our solar system? Will drones be our means of future transport? Can our planet sustain its population? How do we fight disease? What is art? Poetry? Music? How do we predict the unpredictable?

Answering such questions (or just trying to) inspires the construction of pathways to some form of knowing. And next year we will build new pathways, only in a different direction.

That direction came to me over breakfast, over many of them actually, as I followed my custom and perused the newspaper. Doing so this morning led me to articles on the recent elections in South Africa, some friction between France and Germany on trade, continued antagonism between the U.S. and Iran, tariff battles, controversy over eligibility rulings for intersex athletes, the impact of austerity measures in Great Britain, a TV show that puts together South Koreans and defectors and escapees from the North, an aboriginal tribe in Australia suing the government for failing to address climate change, Disney’s purchase of the FOX network, a recent report on the extinction rate of species on the planet, and Google’s position on the relationship between data and personal privacy.

No doubt I could have found lots more news and even some articles contradicting those I read in the New York Times, which leads to the question, our inquiry question, “What is the news of the world?”

The answer may not be—and arguably should not be—what we read in a newspaper or find on a website. Maybe it’s some discovery made in a lab, some artifact found underground, some vision of the universe captured through a telescope, the next great novel, the questionable ending of Game of Thrones, or the rise of nationalism. It could be the amalgamation and consolidation of a host of related events or behaviors or attitudes. The only requirement is that the “news” be global at least.

To get us thinking, we will read Paulette Jiles’ appropriately named novel, News of the World. Set in the American West over a century ago, it follows the journey of Captain Jefferson Kidd, an ex-soldier who travels the plains reading newspapers for townsfolk, and Johanna, a young girl who has lived among the Kiowa since infancy but has been forced, under the auspices of a new treaty, to be returned to her relatives, a fate she is determined to avoid. Like all great western yarns News of the World is full of adventure, good guys and bad guys, a gunfight or two, unexpected twists and some really great writing. It is also the ideal catalyst as we consider the larger question of our world and what is worthy to be called news.