Clock with gears, 2019.
history history relevance practical history pragmatic historian purpose of history using history

Questions Spark History

Clock with gears, 2019.
Clock with gears, 2019.

I recently caught a ride with a museum colleague to a meeting. During our journey, my colleague made an observation about me that surprised me. He said, “You ask good questions.” And my first thought was, doesn’t everyone ask good questions?

I very much subscribe to the belief that there are no dumb questions. Questions come naturally to human beings, with toddlers asking, “Why?” or “What’s this?” incessantly. Questions are a sign of curiosity, and human beings are nothing if not curious.

As my colleague and I chatted more about my question-asking ability, I realized that I was fortunate to have a dad who would entertain most of my questions when I was a kid, even arcane stuff. I once asked him what “appportioned” meant on license plates and he patiently explained the term. He never made me feel stupid for asking questions. Having been thus encouraged, I built my question-asking muscles until asking questions became second nature.

I related the conversation I had with my museum colleague to my daughter and she made a couple of comments that were further revelations to me. She said that her dear childhood friend once commented to her about how I asked good questions and never made this friend feel dumb or like a child when I asked her questions. My daughter further revealed that she thinks her success in college was not because of anything specific she learned in school, but the critical thinking she learned growing up in a household where we asked lots of questions.

Questions are crucial to critical thinking. They show your brain is engaged and trying to figure things out, not just absorbing various stimuli, but playing with those stimuli in a deeper way.

You know a field that is rife with questions? History.

With my love of asking questions, it is no surprise that I landed in history, where I get to ask questions every day.

There are easy questions like, “When did this person live?”, “Who were they related to?”, “Where did they live?”, “What were their accomplishments?”

But there are also much harder questions like, “How did this person feel to be uprooted from their home community?”, “How did a particular industry change the nature of a community?”, “Is there anything of archaeological significance on this piece of land?”, “What motivated this person to do what they did?”

All of these questions, easy and hard, encourage you to seek answers in the historic record, but they also spark further questions in order to learn even more history. Keep doing that and pretty soon your critical thinking skills will be improved. (Critical thinking is a skill that transfers to many other fields.)  Do it long enough and you may even become a practicing historian.

It seems only appropriate that I end this post with a question, so here goes …

What is one of the most important questions you have ever asked? (Think about a question that led to a life-altering event or that dramatically shifted your perspective.) If you are so inspired, please share your question in the comments.

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