On July 19, 1968, Jeremy Boissevain gave a short talk at the Mater Admirabilis Teacher College. Boissevain’s question was about Maltese society’s relationship to questions: Why do the Maltese ask so few questions?

Anthropologists are professional four-year-olds: they ask child-like questions about the world, to which they then try to find grown-up answers. Boissevain was struck by the contrast between the Maltese maxim, Il-mistoqsija oħt il-għerf (the question is the sister of wisdom) and Maltese social practice.

In 1990, the University of Malta revisited that talk. It asked for a response from a professor of education, Charles Farrugia, two philosophers, Joe Friggieri and Peter Serracino Inglott, and a practising politician, Alfred Sant (then two years away from becoming Labour leader). The four agreed that Boissevain’s question remained relevant 22 years on.

Around 50 years after Boissevain first raised the matter, I began the practice of discussing the issue in my initial class with first-year university students. They have interesting answers (I keep adding notes to my files) which both confirm Boissevain’s intuitions and point to an angle he didn’t factor in.

Boissevain gave his talk almost four years after Independence. We will celebrate the 60th anniversary this year but we’re still circling around the issues he raised so long ago.

Every time a politician or a pundit declaims that our democracy needs more teaching of critical thinking, they are simultaneously putting their finger on a real problem while, in most cases, missing what Boissevain and his four 1990 respondents pointed out.

Critical thinking begins with asking questions, not with giving answers. Today, Malta is full of answers in the social media but still has too few questions. But it’s the questions that matter. They frame the issue – what information to ask for, how to evaluate an explanation. No wonder that the critical questions that are asked of the authorities rarely get answers.

Back in 1968, Boissevain told the teachers the reason for the paucity of questions was not a lack of education. Rather, it was too much of the wrong kind of lifelong education: avoiding raising questions was learned behaviour. He said four factors were at play in this perverse education.

One was the colonial heritage, which discouraged questions as impertinent. Another was a ‘hierarchy of infallibility’, where you learned not to ask questions of your social and religious superiors. A third was Malta’s small-scale society, which inhibited people from sticking their neck out. Finally, he suggested that schooling based on the English language, instead of Maltese, could prevent some from properly processing what they learned.

It’s striking how things have changed while remaining the same. It’s time to come to grips with it- Ranier Fsadni

Boissevain has often been interpreted as arguing that Maltese are intellectually passive for deep-rooted cultural reasons. But he placed more emphasis on the lack of tolerance for questions – that is, the attitude of those in power – than on the credulity of those who must obey.

While there’s a lot that naturally looks dated in his original argument, this element does not. It has profound consequences for how we teach critical thinking.

If the problem is credulity, the task is to give people a fine-tuned BS detector. But the arrogance of the powerful won’t be addressed by teaching more critical thinking.

The country is full of critical thinkers, insightful in private company, who are afraid to voice their questions. With them, the task is to make asking questions safer. It’s also to teach courage. In both cases, education must include information about constitutional rights and protections.

In 1990, the four respondents picked up different strands of Boissevain’s analysis.

Farrugia said the education system was still inadequate. Friggieri pointed out a new development. In 1990, journalism was taking off. The pages of newspapers were multiplying and journalists were better paid; it was no coincidence that it was the year that Daphne Caruana Galizia began writing her column. But the expansion was being financed by an exponential growth in advertising (especially by the real estate industry) and, Friggieri said, that came with fewer stories investigating environmental protection. Sant argued that Boissevain’s four factors were not equal. The dominant one was the political-cultural hierarchy, which had its ways of inhibiting and co-opting questioners.

Jeremy BoissevainJeremy Boissevain

These three respondents all focused on dominant forces. Fr Peter, as was typical, cast the problem in a new light. Not asking questions, he said, could be a form of resistance to power – not wanting to play the game of recognising the power-holders as the ones worthy of having answers.

When I ask my students what they make of these considerations, they tend to agree with both Sant and Fr Peter.

In reply to Boissevain’s observation that we ignore our own proverbs, one student retorted: “No, we’re following another proverb: Is-skiet risposta (silence is an answer).”

Others agree. In a partisan country, no question is deemed innocent. The wrong question can come back to haunt you.

Social media have exacerbated the problem of scale: you know you’re being watched; questions from years back can be dredged up.

As for the education system, they say, often the very methods of teaching are not exploratory enough. There are plenty of questions but not enough time for them.

Boissevain’s talk turns 56 next week. It’s striking how things have changed while remaining the same. It’s time to come to grips with it.

Stop blaming the people who don’t raise questions. Insist on a society that’s safe for questions and which makes raising them worthwhile.


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