Education Opinion

Welcome to Making the Case: Einstein, SCOTUS, and Asking the Right Question

By James E. Ryan — March 07, 2016 3 min read
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I believe in the power of good questions. This belief may stem from being an academic and, in particular, a law professor. But I have always thought that asking the right question was just as important as discovering the right answer, in part because no one cares (or ought to care) about the answer to the wrong question.

Many point to Einstein when celebrating the power of questions, as Einstein famously said that, if his life depended on solving a problem in one hour, he would spend the first 55 minutes formulating the right question to ask. But when I think of asking the right question, I think of Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, after serving for thirty-five years on the bench.

I witnessed Justice Stevens in action during the year I clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist. During that year, I watched a lot of oral arguments. Justice Stevens was not as combative, clever, or humorous as some of his colleagues on the bench, including the recently deceased Justice Scalia, who could bring the courtroom to tears of laughter and lawyers to tears of frustration. Yet Justice Stevens, in my view, usually asked the best questions. Indeed, I thought Justice Stevens more often than not asked what seemed to me the key question--the question which, when asked, broke the case open and became the question on which a case turned. If the lawyer could answer the question persuasively, her side would likely prevail. If not, her side would likely lose.

The questions Justice Stevens posed, I should add, were not aggressive nor were they “gotcha” questions, designed to trap lawyers or embarrass them. Instead, they were asked politely and with humility and, by all appearances, with a sincere desire to get to the bottom of the case.

That is the spirit with which I begin this blog. I recognize that it is natural if not obligatory in introductory blog posts to point out what is “missing from the conversation,” as a way of justifying yet another blog. So here goes: In my view, there are not enough people asking good questions about education practice and policy. To be sure, there are critics and defenders of any number of policies. But in my experience, the critics too often attack straw men instead of confronting the strongest arguments in favor of a practice or policy. The defenders, meanwhile, too rarely cast a critical eye on the policy or practice they prefer. Any questions that are posed, as a result, tend to be strategic rather than sincere--intended primarily, if not solely, to encourage criticism or support of a particular policy or practice.

The point of this blog is to ask real questions. My ambition is to identify the key questions at the heart of any number of education issues and debates, ranging from pre-K through post-secondary education. Given the partisan bickering that pervades discussions about education, some readers will be inclined to suspect I have some hidden agenda. My only agenda, however, is to ask questions in a way that I hope will spark more honest conversations and productive debates about some key topics in education.

I will not shy away from controversial topics, nor will I give a free pass to policies or practices that seem, on the surface, wise to me. Indeed, asking hard questions about policies you currently prefer is, to me, even more important than asking hard questions about the ones you oppose. If this blog is successful, I suspect readers of all backgrounds will at some point or another find themselves thoroughly annoyed by the questions I am posing. That surely was the case with lawyers who argued in front of Justice Stevens. In the end, however, I believe those very same lawyers came to respect Justice Stevens precisely because he asked such hard questions and, by doing so, forced them to make a stronger case for the positions they were advocating. I cannot predict that this blog will produce similar sentiments in readers, but I begin with the modest hope that my posts will at least inspire some reflection.

I write, finally, in my personal capacity. I am not currently a practicing law professor. I now serve as the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). The questions, views, and opinions in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of HGSE, assuming it were even possible for an academic institution to have a single view on any topic.

The opinions expressed in Making the Case: Key Questions in Education Debates are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.