Inquiry is Essential - Tilton School

Inquiry is Essential

by Mike Landroche, Academic Dean


Some things in life we just need to know.  And, if we open our minds to the world around us, it will present us with other moments that inspire a genuine desire to know.

Tilton School understands the essential skill of Inquiry as the set of learned practices leading us to a deeper understanding of the things we need, and truly want, to know. For example, Inquiry can inform our actions in response to pressing world issues like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial and gender injustice. Further, Inquiry helps us make sense of the day-to-day issues before us, how to create stronger bodies and minds while living and working on a boarding school campus.

So, while Inquiry begins with a need or a deep desire to know, it presses us to demand the best available information and to rely on credible authority and not on celebrity, on scientific reasoning and not on untested conjecture, and on the actual details of contemporary events, and not on “alternative facts” spun by persons and groups promoting a hidden agenda.

This epistemological diligence we call Inquiry looks beyond simplistic formulations of problems and soft, uncritical solutions. Instead, it seeks out divergent data sources, examines an issue/problem from multiple angles, and prompts honest self-assessment to guard against uncritical bias.

Tilton School treaches the essential skill of Inquiry via the Mastery Approach

I’ll provide an example from my role as a teacher in the English classroom.

Earlier this year, as the nation spun into action after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Tilton School held a series of community discussions to learn and to share stories about injustices experienced by black and brown people around the country. We invited students, alumni, faculty, trustees and friends of the community to these conversations.

I listened. I wanted to learn. As a teacher of literature, I wondered, “What might I do differently to help my own, mostly white, students come to know and feel what they might not otherwise understand about social justice in America?” 

I knew I needed to listen more, to learn more.

During the first of these forums, Board member, Harold Bailey ’63, suggested a book by Ibram X. Kendi, professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. I spent June with Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Diving deeply into Kendi’s analysis of American History, all 600 pages of it, I learned so much about the origins of the racist, segregationist and anti-racist ideas that never found their way into my high school and college education.

In addition, I read fiction — Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat, set in Reading, Pennsylvania before the 2008 recession. I read Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Nickle Boys, set in a Florida “reform school” and New York City during and well after the Civil Rights movement. And I read Jason Reynold’s and Brendan Kiely’s Corretta Scott King Award-winning novel All American Boys, set in the contemporary period and challenging its audience to listen to a community’s many reactions to the use of excessive force by the police.

And I listened further — to YouTube interviews, to the pundits of NPR, CNN and Fox News, and to many friends and family members who offered their own, widely diverse, understanding of our current moment.

While I am not finished listening and learning, I have concluded that I can and must do more to help my students grapple with the tragedies and the victories that find themselves above the fold on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

So, in my AP Lit classes, we used July and August to study Colson Whitehead’s novel and Lynn Nottage’s play. We will read another Nottage play this fall, along with the play Doubt  by Patrick Shanley and The Flick, by Annie Baker, each of which confront racial, gender and economic justice. In my 9th Grade English class, we are just now finishing All American Boys. In my creative writing class we have studied a bit of James Baldwin’s memoir Notes of a Native Son.

My students are rising to the challenge of these texts — inquiring on their own about contemporary events, back-stories and subtexts.  They are probing into the politics, philosophy, psychology and personal associations that connect to the characters, their words and their actions. And yes, we are looking at the literary as well — how writers create imaginary worlds that model themselves after our own and how they skillfully employ Image, Metaphor, Symbol and Irony to help them tell their stories.

This is not easy work, and yet my students are open to it, engaging with each other in conversation and thinking deeply about what the literature has to say to them. Together, we are learning that among Inquiry’s most powerful skills is just this: listening to each other with open minds and empathic hearts.