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The Death of "Why?": The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy (BK Currents) Paperback – July 1, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

America's preference for easy answers over hard questions is castigated in this unfocused critical-thinking manifesto. Schlesinger, director of the Drum Major Institute, blames an alleged (but undemonstrated) decline in the habit of asking big questions for a grab bag of shortcomings in education and public rhetoric: students who rely on Google to do their research; standardized tests that demand regurgitated facts rather than analysis and evaluation; the displacement of civics courses by financial literacy curricula that insinuate free-market ideology; Sarah Palin's evasive gobbledygook in the vice-presidential debates. It all adds up, she contends, to an attenuated democracy that never challenges the status quo, that values solutions and being right over thoughtful inquiry. One cannot argue with Schlesinger's call for deeper thinking about public affairs, but her framing of the issue as a crisis of questioning is obtuse. She ignores how inquiry can be an instrument of obfuscation (think of the fossil-fuel industry's persistent questioning of global-warming research), and her disdain for factual knowledge slights the role of sheer ignorance in clouding political debate. Hers is a regrettably shallow take on the problems of public discourse. (July 13)
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Review

Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, considers the decline of civic consciousness as symptomatic of a general "habit of mind." She adduces much evidence about the diminishing use of "Why?" among American youth and in society at large. From the Internet to the decline of civics education in recent Bush Administration policy, the sources of our indifference move from the philosophical to the explicitly political. There are pedagogical bright spots to suggest methods to revitalize questioning in the classroom and "slow democracy" in public life. Schlesinger helps connect educational theory with the current debate about "social capital" in Robert D. Putnam's classic, Bowling Alone. Verdict Schlesinger's book may attract a wide audience of readers concerned with education, political science, and community organizing. Recommended.--Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ.-Erie -- Library Journal, August, 2009
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Product Details

  • Series: BK Currents
  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers (July 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1576755851
  • ISBN-13: 978-1576755853
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,033,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Andrea Batista Schlesinger's new book is one that really makes you think.
Dean Freedman
In general, I am interested in topics such as Creativity and Education, but this book was an extremely welcome different perspective on what amounts to the same topic.
Evan Schwartz
Teaching civics is a good idea, but won't help much if there's no forum where such arts can be practiced regularly.
Thomas W. Sulcer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Dean Freedman on June 21, 2009
Format: Paperback
Andrea Batista Schlesinger's new book is one that really makes you think. Though its focus is primarily on the habits and miseducation of young people, the issues raised have broad applicability to all segments of society. (Before you read on, please note that I may be somewhat biased, as I helped the author early on in the writing process by responding to several surveys she conducted as part of her research.)

The main question is: Have we forgotten how to ask questions and is this leaching the life and vitality out of our society? In particular, are we so used to getting easy answers through modern conveniences like internet search engines that we don't even bother to think deeply about anything anymore? Are we really becoming a society of "headline skimmers" who are too impatient to read whole newspaper stories (let alone whole books)?

From beginning to end, this book got me thinking. The author has many theories and ideas you'll have to ponder. She suggests we need to institute "slow democracy," where we all take more time to think about, and debate, policy issues; she believes schools need to teach young people how to participate in their communities rather than training them to balance their checkbooks; she thinks the current way we do presidential debates is a sham where the candidates get to yammer on about whatever they want without actually answering the questions that were posed to them; she posits the proposition that our country was founded on a single question: "Why can't I be free?" and that, therefore, the need to question things is at the very root of our democracy.

She will get you thinking about, and questioning, everything you've done, are doing, and may or may not want to do.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By H. Ivan Hentschel on August 19, 2009
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Every so often, a book presents itself that, after you have read it, makes you realize that it was the book you should have read before you read all of those other books in the pile on your desk. This book is that volume.
Ms. Schlesinger begins the book with the statement, "Why is the first question most children ask", but I wonder how many of us even bother to ask why that is the case? I fear that I may scarcely do this work justice (I have resisted just putting the entire text in quotation marks) in a short review, but I will try. While ostensibly about a philosophical issue (Socrates comes immediately to mind, and she does well with him later chapters), it is essentially about the health, well-being being and future of democracy. And not any democracy, but our democracy.
The treatise is divided into three distinct parts: our culture, our schools and, finally, our politics. They are carefully and cleverly interwoven so that any one never loses sight of the other two. In the style of any good essayist, the introduction sets out clearly what we might expect from the remainder of the book, and offers an ominous clue as to where she thinks we should focus our attention: "Are we teaching our children to inquire as much as the times demand?"
We get dropped into the cultural milieu driving the "why" when she asks, "When was the last time you changed your mind on something important?", and then answers this way: "I've changed my mind a few times. One thing I can say for sure is that I've never changed it while surrounded by people who agree with me.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Pastora Cafferty on June 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
The author makes a compelling argument for the importance of analytical thinking in today's society and convincingly examines the impediments raised by educational institutions as well as information technology to exercising critical judgment: this is an important book for policy makers and educators as well as for anyone who is concerned about the failure of government and private enterprise to address the needs of contemporary American society. Pastora San Juan Cafferty, Professor emerita, University of Chicago
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Tom Watson on July 27, 2009
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Every era has at least a few serious voices who openly question the new ways, the settled conventional wisdom around innovations in style, technology and social habits that change - at least on the surface - how society operates. As everybody else is celebrating the greatness of, well, themselves, these idoloclasts happily throw poison-tipped darts in a cultural clash with the totems of perceived progress.

Such a counter-programmer is my friend Andrea Batista Schlesinger, the 32-year-old New Yorker and progressive activist whose first book The Death of Why holds up a big, fat stop sign to those who would celebrate under the banner "all that is modern is good."

[Note: Andrea is the longtime executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a progressive think tank on whose board of directors I've served since 2002. She's on leave from that position while working as a policy adviser to the reelection campaign of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.]

The Death of Why goes against the grain. It stands opposed to any triumphalist viewpoints regarding digital communications. You can easily read it as the diametric opposite of Jeff Jarvis's somewhat hagiographic What Would Google Do?, for example. Andrea doesn't believe the Internet in general - and Google specifically - has necessarily made us any smarter or more democratic as a society. While she praises the innovation of always-available information and the worldwide networked conversation made possible by the network of networks, she also strikes out at the idea of searching as knowledge, of linking as journalism or education.

And she uses one particular commentator's voice as a stalking horse for her arguments against the Internet-as-knowledge: mine.
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