The Importance of Questions: A report from Greece

Sep 12, 2011 by

by Colin Hannaford
our Senior British and Foreign Correspondent

Colin Hannaford our Senior British and Foreign Correspondent


Modern Bible scholars credit the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah with ‘spiritualizing and individualizing religion, by insisting on the primacy of the individual’s relationship with God’.

This sounds as if he must have been a star turn around 5th century BC.

The truth is that he was a failure for most of his life.

For decades he tried to warn the people of Israel that unless they responded to God’s demands, they would lose their land and be enslaved.

The Lord,” he warned, “is bringing a nation from far away to attack you, a strong and ancient nation: a nation whose language you do not know. Its soldiers kill without mercy” (Jer. 5.15)

And it is no defence, he added, if people protest that they are only doing what others were doing. They must respond personally to God’s demands.

They certainly responded personally to him. Poor Jeremiah was repeatedly beaten, chained, imprisoned, threatened with death and thrown into a cistern by the high priests who felt him a threat to their power and wealth: as, of course, he was.

Eventually he was left in prison to rot.

He was released by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar: who not only released him, but praised him for his conviction and courage.

Unfortunately, this was after his prophecies had come true.

Jerusalem had fallen. Many Jews were enslaved.

Being a modern Jeremiah is not exactly a fun choice for a career. For over twenty years I have been irritating the high priests of my profession by warning that teaching mathematics by instruction is even more damaging to modern societies than worshipping false gods was for the Jews.

Whilst teaching mathematics for nearly thirty years, I had made an astonishing discovery: astonishing, first because it should be so obvious; astonishing again because virtually no mathematics teacher appears to know it.

Here it is: the early Athenian Greeks did not develop what we now call ‘mathematical arguments’: that is, of evidence, connection, conclusion in order to do mathematics.

They developed them to allow ordinary Athenians to be confident and more successful in democratic debate.

I experienced a breakthrough, I thought of even greater importance, when I found that directing my youngsters to learn mathematics democratically – that is through open discussion, rather than from my instruction – allowed them to achieve a far deeper understanding of mathematics, is far more enjoyable for everyone, including their teacher and, finally, greatly increases their respect both for each other and for different opinions.

Emerson once claimed that if anyone built a better mousetrap the world would beat a path to his door.

Here is a better mousetrap!

Given the state of mathematics education in Britain, America, and most Western countries, I imagined that the world would build a freeway to my door.

To my surprise, at first, this didn’t happen. I have not been beaten, chained, thrown into prison or into sewers. But that was necessary in 500 BC. There is no need for such extreme measures today in well-governed professions. Awkward characters can instead be ignored.

I now find this disgusting. The fact that millions of children are leaving our schools functionally illiterate; the fact that our societies are becoming increasingly dysfunctional; the fact that there are ‘strong and ancient nations’ very ready to make us their subjects: apparently none of this concerns education’s high priests.

Every child must learn mathematics. No child escapes. The method of instruction is the model for most other subjects. Ideally, mathematics teachers should be amongst the most able, confident, inventive, charismatic. Of course, no-one can really expect all mathematics teachers to be able, confident, inventive, charismatic.

This is not realistic. Children must sometimes accept rather less.

Equally, no-one can really expect thousands of university academics in American, British, and European universities to admit that, with very few exceptions, they still maintain the benefits of the ludicrous belief of a simple-minded Swiss psychologist of over sixty years ago.

Please read this carefully. His belief was that all children of about the same age have about the same degree of the same kind of intelligence, and that there is only this one kind of intelligence.

Fundamentally, this is rationale for teaching classes of any size by instruction.

Let us follow the logic. If all the pupils of about the same age have about the same degree of only one kind of intelligence, then any number of these pupils can be addressed as if they are one! Because they will all have about the same degree of only one kind of intelligence, they will suck in information like a sponge.

I described the origin of this farcical idea in my previous EducationNews report. It is entitled: ‘The Bad Boy of British Education’. Please read it there.

I have also described its consequences, many times. But, since no Jeremiah worth his salt – or sewer – must be afraid of repeating his warning, let me to do so again.

The first is that the teacher must be sure to steer the pupils away from asking any seriously thoughtful questions. There is no time: nor is there need. If they follow and obey the instruction, it will teach them what to do.

Understanding why they do it will come later.

But usually it does not.

This is where children’s trust in their own intelligence begins to be destroyed. Pretending to understand when they do not understand destroys their honesty. The double assault on their confidence and their honesty destroys their innocence.

But that is not the end. Being obliged to pretend destroys self-respect. It destroys respect for others. It destroys respect for authority. Finally, it removes the sense of responsibility. “It’s the System,” you may hear. “It made me do what I do.”

And to a disturbing degree: this is true.

Virtually all societies have a system that discourages people from asking too many questions.

Most societies find the people who persist in asking too many questions disturbing. Instead of rewarding the individual – for whom, of course, as Jeremiah might have pointed out, God is the supreme model – most reward conformity.

There is nothing essentially wrong with conformity: unless it becomes pathological. Unfortunately, this happens all too easily.

Conformity is obviously achieved by insisting on the strictest regulation of thoughts and habits: perhaps by exact obedience to one rule of worship; perhaps by adherence to one secular ideal. Many Western societies have experienced conformity of this kind.

It may appear paradoxical, but conformity can also be achieved by offering people a multiplicity of minor gods: by insisting that no one of these is essentially different from the others; that all or none can be worshipped.

This is the problem that plagued Jeremiah.

Most Western societies have virtually abandoned notions of individual decision and responsibility in favour of something called, mysteriously, multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism basically means worshipping or respecting many new gods: not only the gods of religions, but the gods of money; status; celebrity; social pleasure; group excitement; personal excitement; personal pleasure. Even science can be worshipped as a god.

Since there appears to be no direction by society to think or act in any particular way, there appears to be no control.

But there is. Perhaps more than any, multiculturalism discourages asking questions: especially deep, thoughtful, importance questions. Instead it insists, implicitly and explicitly, that there are no important questions to ask.

I know that my questions and answers have annoyed many people. They are annoyed when I insist that the endless demand on children to understand instruction without asking questions, will always produce a tiny clever minority who do understand but who learn to be selfish; it will always produce a much larger fraction convinced that they must learn to be successfully dishonest; and it will always produce an angry disappointed remainder ready to trash the world.

Where’s the evidence?” my angry listeners demand. “Where’s your evidence?”

Look around you,” should be an adequate response. These consequences are universal. No-one trusts anyone. No-one trusts politicians, bankers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, priests. There is distrust at every level. Our societies are allowing themselves to be destroyed, and other nations are ready to collect the pieces.

All of this had been on my mind ever since I realise that the high priests of my profession would certainly drop me in a sewer if they could. They could also wait me for me to fall away exhausted. Then one of their number could have a wonderful idea!

Then I went to Greece. This brought a sharper focus.

Greece has always stood between West and East. That is what Thermopylae was all about: also Salamis, also Marathon, also Plataea. This was where Athens and Sparta turned back the might of Persia.

But my destination for two weeks, the small island of Spetses, in the Saronic Gulf, about three hours from Piraeus, once played a later, smaller, but similar role.

The festival of ARMATA annually commemorates the success of the men and the women of Spetses on September 8th 1821 in preventing a Turkish fleet from carrying supplies to a Turkish fortress further up the coast. The high point of the festival is the blowing up of a replica Turkish warship. A replacement is built every year in a Spetses shipyard.

The men of Spetses were led by a remarkable woman, Laskarina Boubalina. She paid for their warships with much of her own fortune. She was also their admiral.

Soon after winning their independence, the Greeks began to fight each other. Laskarina was arrested and exiled, now virtually penniless, to her home in Spetses.

The end of her story is another Greek tragedy. A girl eloped with her son. Her father went with a mob to Laskarina’s house to demand her return. Laskarina was shot in the face and died instantly. Her killer was never identified.

There is a fine statue of her in front of the Poseidonian, Spetses grandest hotel,. One hand on a pistol in her belt, the other shielding her eyes from the sun, she is still looking out to the East. Such was the end of a heroine equal to Jean d’Arc.

I had not only come to Spetses for a holiday. I also hoped to initiate a European Union conference in a fine old school that is now owned by the Greek Education Ministry. Its aim will be to explain to European teachers – and teachers of other nations – how mathematics teaching can promote democracy: as it did in Socrates’ time.

But sitting in the Poseidonian, whilst the ARMATA stage was being built outside, whilst swarms of children and adult choirs were rehearsing their parts, it was inevitable that I should begin to reflect on the contribution of this tiny island in turning Islam away from Europe: and on the fact that in Britain, as in much of Europe, Islam is now the fastest growing religion.

Soon, in our democracies, it will be the fastest growing political force.

Although now divided between Sunni and Shiite, Islam still demands far more conformity than any Western system. There is little sign of either adapting to the West.

Yet one of the last messages of Mohammed was to implore his followers: ‘never be divided again!’ Equally famous is his statement that: ‘the pen of the scholar is more powerful than the swords of a thousand warriors.’

How can Islam be helped to honour both declarations in a way that also closes the rift with the West?

Spetses is a place of very steep, hot, clean but rough concrete lanes I was descending one of these lanes morning, already sweating through my new shirt, when a thought came to me. I soon found that it impressed the people I had arranged to meet.

It begins with a question: ‘What essentially is the difference between education in the West and in Islam that Islam cannot match?”

And the answer, equally simple, is: “We can teach our children to ask questions.

The problem, of course, is that we can teach our children: but we do not.

The genius of Greece was always in asking questions. Socrates was killed for asking too many. This spirit of Greece survived repeated oppression and suppression in the West. Currently it is oppressed by the absurdities of multiculturalism, political correctness, and – of course – teaching for the exam.

In religion and in science this irrepressible spirit has always guided West thinkers to ask questions and to attempt their answers.

It has always seemed to me that this is not only essential for our intellectual health, but is even more essential for our spiritual health. Without the belief that every individual mind retains this capacity, we are left with no more sense of fundamental identity than the rootless youths scribbling on walls and looting cell-phone in their attempt to theirs.

Who can notice them? As insubstantial as ghost, they must feel as if they have contracted Alzheimer’s in their teens. ‘Who are you?’ ‘I don’t know.’

At this point my distinguished interrogator, an historian, pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead. He conceded that I had a point. He told me a great deal of history as well as philosophy that I did not know, and he offered to look for contacts for me in Athens.  I asked especially for a deeply serious and deeply sexy professor, perhaps in her early fifties. Perhaps older; perhaps younger.

It may finally – I hope – amuse my readers to learn that I have recently caused deep distress to several of my dearest friends by suggesting that I am a messiah.

Not, please note, The Messiah: just a decidedly imperfect article: but still a messiah, with a message.

I defined messiah simply, as anyone prepared to ask awkward questions.

The most awkward question of the moment is where the human race is intelligent enough to survive. Currently this is doubtful. What is not is that we have no longer the luxury of waiting for some wondrous being to appear, simultaneously, everywhere in the world, trailing clouds of glory, accompanied by angels, beginning, as a first priority, to create a just peace in Israel; then re-organising Congress; next removing all the world’s nuclear arms to safely orbit Jupiter; saving the rain forests; and finally – at the end of a very busy week – settling that a very nasty ice-cream war in Miami.

There is no more time for this. It is as bad as waiting for a benevolent civilisation from any other dimension. It is the same old need for mother.

We must all become messiahs. We must train a generation of messiahs. All we, and they, need to learn to do, to have the courage to do, is recognize all the Buddhas, of every size, shape, and importance, that we have been worshipping – and kill them.

Unless we kill them, they will surely kill us. We need to train our children to question everything: to smash all the idols.

I have been astonished how much anger, and apparently honest consternation, this simple suggestion has caused.

It appears that The Messiah is one of the most important of idols.

The anger comes both from those who insist that The Messiah has already been: and gone, unfortunately with much good work unfinished; from those still hoping, presumably, for his second coming; but it has also come from those, most sceptical of any kind of flim-flam, as they call it; for whom, presumably, human imperfections which cannot be humanly overcome must necessarily be suffered.

This last, you will recognize, is the modern doctrine of Original Sin. That hasn’t changed.

So, I am accused of impiety from all sides: of corrupting youth and introducing strange gods. I feel like Socrates all over again.

Perhaps that is how can upset people next. I will next claim to be a reincarnated Socrates! His most recent biographer, the historian Bettany Hughes, told me something delightful when I interviewed her recently. I had asked why Socrates never wrote anything. She told me: “He hated the written word. He believed that knowledge can only exist in conversation.”

My distinguished interrogator was delighted by this; as he was when I reported a conversation I had many years ago with a man called Cecil King, who created what was, at the time, the world’s largest publishing company.

He told me: “If a newspaperman isn’t certain, he does not publish.” I replied, “If a soldier isn’t certain, he does something!”

Here is something being done.

We need to teach our children to question. This is not old Jeremiah’s warning. It is mine. This can save America. It can save Britain. It can save many countries.

But we are running out of time.


Thank you.


Colin Hannaford,

Spetses, Greece; Oxford.



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