Friday, May 24, 2013

Live in the Question

California Governor Jerry Brown is one of the most interesting people in America. Famously ascetic, he still keeps a spartan office and travels with no aides or security. He has no speech writers or “message people.” Once renowned for pie-in-the-sky projects, his main accomplishment during his current term has been balancing the budget. James Fallows, who has interviewed thousands of politicians, writes of Brown, “I have never encountered a politician more willing to talk with, as opposed to talk at, other people than Jerry Brown.”

Brown, says Fallows, likes to think out loud, and he actually listens to what people say in response: “I think as I speak,” he says:
“I find that a lot of people are more invested in position-taking than they are in the inquiry,” he continued. “Generally speaking, I am in the inquiry. I live in the question. People have so many positions, and usually the evidence is not strong enough for them really to be so confident in those conclusions. There are just a lot of things that are not certain.” He rattled off a list of decade-by-decade fads and gimmicks for “saving” America’s struggling school system, most recently No Child Left Behind and the “teacher accountability” movement. “The question you have to ask yourself is, if teacher accountability is really the whole key, how can it be that from Comenius”—a 17th-century European pioneer in education—“through John Dewey and Horace Mann, and going back to the Greeks, every­body missed this secret, and we figured it out just now? I’m skeptical of that—and of you, and Washington, and myself.” This was the “civilizational” outlook Nathan Gardels was referring to. Then, the practicality: “The world is so rich and diverse, and there is this technocratic imperative to impose rules, by small minds.” I realize that on the page this could look airy or pompous. In real conversation, Brown gives a convincing impression of weighing thoughts and evidence as he goes.
So, courtesy of Governor Brown, I finally have a succinct phrase that expresses my intellectual ideal:
I live in the question.

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