WHY: The Creative Question

By John Dexter Marble, Ph.D., J.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma

Exploring questions with divergent answers is the heart of the creative enterprise.  The uncertainty associated with a variety of insights from different disciplines and from different points of view leads to new combinations and new understandings which can often be exciting, and sometimes even practical.

I spent a career in teaching attempting to convey a passion for the creative impulse stimulated by the interdisciplinary question WHY.  On the eve of my retirement from teaching in December 1996, I gave a commencement address at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma from which the following is an excerpt:

I am concerned with what I perceive to be a tendency to equate dissemination of information with education.  This takes many forms: surfing the Internet; televised classes for college credit; expanding the number of required courses in various disciplines in order to try to pass on the explosion of information.

My concern is related to a recent article in Newsweek magazine which discussed differences in math education in Japan and in the United States.  According to Newsweek, Japanese students score higher on math achievement test, but spend less time in class and less time on homework assignments.  According to Newsweek, the primary difference in approach is that Japanese education stresses ideas and concepts, while U.S. education stresses drill and repetitive solutions of problem sets.  In Japan, class time is devoted to discussion of concepts which leads to a far more efficient approach to handling problems not previously encountered.  In contrast, drilling on problem sets without understanding concepts equips a person to handle only yesterday’s problems.

Newsweek’s observation closely parallels my own philosophy of education.

Mastering mountains of information for the sake of the information is essentially worthless.  The only important question in any discipline or endeavor, from history to law to music theory to physics, is WHY.  In order to understand WHY, one is forced to explore and master WHO, WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE, but such mastery is only a byproduct of the basic question.

If the inquiry is only WHO, WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE, the exercise is dull and boring, and fundamentally worthless.  In contrast, pursuit of WHY is exciting, interesting, and never-ending.  WHY always retains a component of the unknown.

In the practice of education, multiple choice tests are excellent devices for testing knowledge of WHO, WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE.  That is the reason multiple choice tests are essentially worthless.

Only essay tests open the world to exploration of WHY.  Essay tests require creative approaches to problems.  Multiple choice tests are limited to that which is already known.  Essay tests require analysis and synthesis of information with possibilities of new insights both for writer and reader.

The difference is intensely practical.  I have yet to learn of a job or career worthy of a college graduate which requires multiple choice skills.  The answers are already known.  Practice in analysis and synthesis in pursuit of understanding WHY, however, opens doors to new and valuable possibilities.

I will guarantee you from personal experience that a lawyer who understands WHY behind the law has an immense advantage over a lawyer who can only tell you WHAT the law is.  This distinction carries over to every occupation, from marketing, to medicine, to auto mechanics.  Effective approaches to the unknown are exciting, interesting, and considerably more rewarding.

My challenge to the faculty is to continue to focus on WHY, and avoid what I perceive as a popular trend to disseminate information only for the sake of the information, and to avoid equating mastery of information with education.

Knowledge is in facts; wisdom is in metaphor.  The best of education encourages abstractions from facts to create new insights and understandings.  This is the essence of the creative process and the foundation of wisdom.

John Dexter Marble, Ph.D., J.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma

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