It is exam season again, with the Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth taking their mocks for the next week or so. It is, in fact, the second major exam sitting of the term, following the fifth form marks earlier in the year. Next term, quite early on I might say, all of the top three years will be taking external exams and the bottom two years will take internal exams. It sometimes feels as if the whole UK education system revolves around these hours sitting at a desk providing the best possible answers to everything that is thrown at you. Happily, most people at this school are quite good at giving the right answers and even those who are not so good can take consolation from the fact that they, too, are well above the national average at answering exam papers.
But I would like to suggest today that life is far more about asking the right questions than giving endless answers. It is only through asking the right questions, and lots of them, that we can further our own knowledge and indeed that of mankind generally. Without questions, there are no answers. So today, three illustrations of effective questioning, from past present and future. To start with the present…
And in fact, to Athens, last summer and an exhibition by arguably the most famous artist alive in the world today, a Chinese man called Ai Wei Wei. Art is an amazing medium through which to ask questions. It rarely provides a single answer; but without doubt it asks the most extraordinary questions of people’s imagination. Ai Wei Wei was born in Beijing in 1957 and is one of the most influential cultural figures of the 21st-century. Son of a denounced poet, he spent his childhood in exile in the western provinces of China on the edge of the Gobi desert. When he returned to Beijing, he was brave enough to join a pro-democratic artistic group, despite close scrutiny from the government at the time. In 2011, as a highly vocal critic of Chinese human rights, he was arrested and held for 81 days without charge, sparking global protest. His passport was confiscated and he was detained in China for four years until his passport was returned by the authorities. During this period, he never gave up his artistic protests. One of the rooms in his exhibition in Athens last summer was simply covered in wallpaper. The wallpaper was highly patterned, but everywhere were depictions of surveillance cameras looking straight at you. It was an eerie feeling in that room and designed to be that way. Ai Wei Wei himself had been kept under close watch and knew what it felt like.
Most of his exhibition was a protest against European governments’ inaction in the face of a mass refugee crisis. Greece, of course, was on the front line. Using all forms of media, he showed the desperation of those refugees set against uncaring governments. In one room, there were photos of the artist himself raising his middle finger to all the individual government buildings of Europe. The question he was posing was clear; why on earth are you not doing more about this unfolding tragedy? His questions were designed to be uncomfortable and to force global consideration.
And so to the past. Six years ago, just around the corner from here, at Edith Cavell School, a construction worker who was putting in a disability ramp by the front door of the school, stumbled upon some strange rock. By chance, this construction worker was an amateur archaeologist and he turned to another local man, Steven Cockings, also a keen archaeologist, for a second opinion. It seemed to both of them that not only had they stumbled across something interesting, but also that they were likely to be close to a site which would have been of utmost importance to the Romans about 2000 years ago. Stephen Cockings, in particular, never stopped asking questions; last November there was finally a professional archaeological dig very close to the driveway leading up to Bedford Modern School. The dig uncovered all sorts of interesting archaeological features including a Roman wall, roof tiles, coins, hand painted wall plaster, glass from Egypt, and even a Roman child’s footprint. Piecing together all the evidence they had from the dig, the professional archaeologists came to some extraordinary conclusions, namely that part of the history of Roman Britain ought to be re-written. It had become clear that this was an imperial building; that there was likely to have been a link between the Roman who was sent to run this building and his brother who was sent to a major site at Hadrian’s wall; that this part of the Ouse Valley was a key site for the production of grain in the Roman Empire; and that the grain was loaded onto ships to take out to the Wash, where some went left to feed the legions at Hadrian’s wall and some went right to feed the legions on the Rhine in Germany.
It may be that neither of these two stories particularly grab your own imagination. However, it is undeniably the case that Stephen Cockings’ endless questioning has led to a significant discovery about our history; and Ai Wei Wei’s provocative questions urge governments into action.
The third story is to do with the future. This is you. Interesting lives are led by those who ask questions, push boundaries of their knowledge, and do not run out of questions. This can help at school, of course, too. If you are in the fourth form or remove at the moment, ask as many questions as you can; listen carefully to the answers and test them to push your limits and use your imagination. Even with Britain’s antiquated exam system, asking questions now will pay dividends later. But far more importantly your working lives and your personal lives, will be enriched by asking questions. Employers want people who are curious, just as schools do; friends will want people who are curious and interested in them, just as will potential wives and partners. The future will be the most fabulous place for those who are curious and questioning. So make sure that you test your powers of questioning every day; and don’t worry too much if you don’t have all the answers yet.