Don't Know Much

How to Develop an Inquiring Mind–And Why We Must

Like the ancient Greeks who stood on the beach, looked at the night sky and asked questions about where the moon went in the daytime, or why the tides shifted, we all must open our minds to the power of curiosity.

We are living in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Today, the most basic notions of truth, science, sound medical advice, and historical facts are under assault at the highest levels of government around the world as well as in the mass media. Propaganda has become a weapon as powerful and poisonous as many of the conventional and unconventional threats we have long been made to fear.

The dangers posed to democracy and freedom, along with an existential climate crisis and the most deadly pandemic in a century, are the most dire threats America has experienced in my lifetime, far surpassing the Cold War’s risks. I write and say that without exaggeration. It ought to set off alarm bells for everyone.

The question is — what do we do about it?

To combat this assault on reality and truth, the skills of learning and thinking are more important than ever. To be better teachers, parents, students, and citizens requires all of us to become more inquiring and media literate. We need to seek quality information from reliable sources at the same time we embrace healthy skepticism. We need to exercise our curiosity—the basic human instinct that has driven progress, innovation, and invention. But we need to understand how to discern what is true.

I have spent my life asking questions, doing research, and seeking answers. And I would like to share some observations. I promise not to offer any pedagogy. I can’t even use the word in a sentence.

Here are some basic principles that are the backbone of the approach I use as a writer, historian, and classroom lecturer. I plan to expand on some of these points in this space during the coming weeks and months:

#1—Ask questionswho, what, when, where and why are words that can open doors

#2—Identify experts and reliable sources, and use primary documents

#3—Understand that learning is teaching and teaching is learning

#4—Create and adopt a learning demeanor and see life itself as a school

#5—Place books, reading, and libraries at the center of our personal education—resolve to read

#6—Explore media literacy and learn who and what you can trust

#7—Know what you don’t know

#8—Identify the threat of the “wisdom of the crowd” or “tribe”

#9— Beware the arrogance of certainty and those “experts” who profess they know the truth and even punish or kill those who disagree

#10—Avoid the pitfall of “following” and appreciate the value of “unfollowing”

These techniques will only grow more valuable as we move into a heightened era of misinformation possibly dominated by Artificial Intelligence. All the more reason to argue for Natural Intelligence.

We stand at a flashpoint of historical dimensions. Both in the United States and elsewhere around the world, there are basic challenges to democracy, freedom, human rights, and decency taking place. The moment seems to confirm H.G. Wells’s dire 1920 prediction that, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Only by learning, thinking, and knowing can we actually challenge those who would turn off the spigots of information. That may give us our best chance to avert catastrophe.



[Read my earlier essay “Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport” in Social Education (September 2019), the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies]

© Copyright 2022 Kenneth C. Davis All rights reserved

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