There is a period in child development when children start asking the question ’why?’. They usually seem unsatisfied with one answer only and keep asking, ‘but, why?’. Education is supposed to take those ‘whys’ and amplify them, use that early explosion of curiosity in the mind, make sure that it’s welcomed and nurtured, and guarantee that this curiosity stays for ever, beyond the initial big bang.
Bad education, however, misses this opportunity completely and, instead of pushing for a permanent ‘why?’, rushes to offer a great quantity of ready-made answers that seem to progressively decrease the need for more ‘why?’. The mind says: ‘There seems to be answers everywhere, particularly from that long, rectangular space on the screen called Google search, so perhaps I should not worry so much’… Neil Postman (1931-2003), a US educator, put it as sharply and as unkindly as: ‘Children come to school as a question mark and leave school as a full stop!’.
There is a point in the child’s education when the ‘why?’ loses the battle and the ‘how to’ becomes king: this is how you answer the question, this is how you do it, this is how you solve the problem, the riddle, the challenge. At some tragic point, the ‘I know how to answer this’, in the child’s homework, becomes totally independent of the question.
I call this the point of inflection, when the ‘why?’ enters into prolonged agony, even exile, and the ‘how to’ takes over, The Big ‘How To’ takeover.
Education, from the Latin educere, means to extract from within, to take out, to come to light, to set the ‘why?’ free. I call the opposite of this de-education: to give all the answers beforehand and promote ‘the how-to’ over the ‘why?’. De-education teaches how to produce beautiful answers, regardless of whether they are answers to the wrong questions.
Given our education system, it should not surprise us that there is a whole industry of ‘ how to’ products and services, from publications to consulting and life coaching: how to be happy, how to be successful, how to be a good parent, how to bake a cake, how to deal with rejection and a myriad more.
In that context, it should not surprise us either that, in organizational life (a reflection of society, after all), we are working mostly with the ‘how to’ currency. Skills, competences, entire HR systems of performance management, are designed to deal with people who know ‘how to’ do things. The ‘Why are we doing this?’ is in flagrant short supply. The reasons why we do what we do are assumed: there is a strategy, a dictation, goals, a process. The focus is on how to deliver. Some people told me: ‘I am paid for doing stuff; nobody has ever suggested to me that I am paid, or will be paid, for asking why.’
The problem accumulated is certainly not the richness of the ‘how to’ but the poverty of the ‘why’. Asking ‘why are we doing this?’, even if it requires the courage to confront dozens of pairs of eyes looking at you in disbelief, is a disruptive idea, a provocative, healthy intervention for which one should get a good bonus.