Inquiry as a Core Value

I received a letter the other day—an actual paper letter in an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address—from a grandparent. The letter was what is becoming a familiar form these days, a rant: multiple, detailed paragraphs not based on firsthand knowledge or fact, just a simple rant. As these things do—as was intended—it upset me, it got under my skin. The writer is an Episcopal priest, his grandchildren attend my school, an Episcopal School, yet, he claimed, they knew nothing about Christian holidays or practices: “my grandchildren can tell me about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Celebration of Light, they know ‘jack’ about Christmas.”

There are so many assumptions built into this communication: that what he hears from his children and grandchildren is without bias and reflective of reality; that there is little value in understanding the wealth of human experience and difference; that there is one religion, and one set of beliefs more important than another. Of course we talk about Christmas and the season of light and giving, we are an Episcopal School. Just last night we had an absolutely magical Lessons and Carols, with students from all grades sharing their musical gifts and reading lessons. And, of course, we celebrate and talk about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah reflecting the rich diversity of our community.

I am glad this gentleman reached out to me, and I will respond. But the frustration I continue to carry is that he didn’t question, he didn’t ask, he didn’t wonder or inquire. Instead, on very little information he vented. One of the highest values we hold as a school—right there in our mission and direct from the Episcopal canon—is inquiry. We ask questions, we wonder, we find ways to inspire our thinking and our wondering through provocations like engagement in the natural world, or readings and lectures from different points of view, or experiencing art or listening to music. We do all of this, in order to change the way we think, the way we know—not to just reinforce our current world view. This is what a good, Episcopal school does.

Arundhati Roy, the novelist known for The God of Small Things wrote, back in early 2020 when 50,000 were dead from Covid worldwide, not 5 million: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ and asked, “What will you take with you through the portal and what will you choose to leave behind?”

What I hope we take with us is inquiry—a willingness and openness to ask questions, to wonder, to listen, to discern, to not assume we know; what I want to leave behind is the confidence that I know, the confidence there is one, right way and I am on it.

And then, as I compose my response, I realize, this grandfather is asking. He wrote because he is questioning and wondering: his grandchildren are growing up in a world he did not know. A world where everything he believed and stood for and fought for is now being questioned. He is wondering if they are getting the skills they need to navigate this complicated world, and whether they will remain connected and close to him as we all go through this portal. And so I will respond to the question he is asking and may not know he is asking.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes: “a teacher comes, they say, when you are ready. And if you ignore its presence, it will speak more loudly. But you have to be quiet to hear.” This pandemic portal, and this grandfather, are such teachers.

Mo Copeland is Head of School at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, OR.