- Paperback: 264 pages
- Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers (June 26, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1576755851
- ISBN-13: 978-1576755853
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,376,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy Paperback – June 26, 2009
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“From her start in politics as a teenager Andrea Batista Schlesinger has asked the important questions. Now she asks her most important: are we teaching young people to value inquiry, and if not, what hope can we have for the future of democracy?”
—Katrina vanden Heuvel, Publisher, The Nation
“The road to wisdom is asking `why?’ Andrea Batista Schlesinger has been asking `why?’ and supplying her own bright and thoughtful answers for long enough that some of us suggested she write a book. It’s fortunate for all of us that her answer was `why not!’”
—Governor Mario Cuomo
“Andrea is a passionate supporter of open inquiry, discussion, and debate in our schools on matters of public concern. It is difficult to think of any other goal as important to the preservation and improvement of our free society.”
—Charles N. Quigley, Executive Director, Center for Civic Education
“The Death of Why? makes the case that we cannot create social change without a culture of questioning. We should pay close attention to this brilliant contribution.”
—Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change
“She asks the right questions at a time when we seem more eager for answers that we don’t understand or care about.”
—Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar, New York University, author of In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas, and founder of innovative New York and Boston area public schools
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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. " This sets the tone for some interesting insights that she cleverly exposes with plays on words and phrases, like , "Don't Know, Don't Ask", which goes on to decry our lack of essential curiosity and our unwillingness to bravely venture into the seemingly unknown of the reasoning behind the basic question of why we think anything. The book continues to offer wonderful, often terse, one-liners that speak plainly: "But we are bigger than our online communities and our towns, and democracy depends on us having a shared understanding of what is happening in the world around us." Or, as regards part of the media, "Today, political capital is a lot less important than the bottom line", and when it comes to Google and Yahoo, "...just when we have acquired all this knowledge at our fingertips we have lost the interest and capacity to truly engage with it.", noting that "This belief in the objectivity of search engines is both inaccurate and dangerous. "
This work really begins to come a head when she tackles education: "Schools: Citizens or Consumers?" and devotes a section to "Financial Literacy in Schools". You will be rolling on the floor, with tears of laughter and sorrow after you read about bank-funded school programs that "teach" children how to open savings accounts and put more money in banker's pockets, without ever learning anything about the financial system, per se. One of her best summaries goes like this: "My argument, however, is that young people who know how to question, think about the world around them, and ask why are those most likely to succeed in this new world. It is up to our public schools to prepare them to do so. Our democracy depends on it."
Perhaps the most chilling statement, near the end of the section on politics, is that, "There are few opportunities to question our leaders as they run for office and even fewer after they win". Ouch. (Prior to that she skewers the Presidential debate formats and the resultant emptiness of them).
As in any good college-level essay format, Ms. Schlesinger waits until the last two pages to tell you what she just told you, and why it is important: "We need a slow democracy to counteract this tendency toward superficial engagement."; " If this book can accomplish anything, I hope it is that we will begin to think more about the asking of questions as a necessary component of a healthy democracy".; "We need deliberation where we have been seduced by false wisdom."; "We need a little bit more Socratic wisdom in our lives and a little les faux certainty. We need a little more why."
So if you want to know what this book says, in brief, read the last two or three pages first, but then that would take all the fun out of it. Because, despite the sometimes dreary subject matter, there is subdued wit and useful sarcasm here, and you will find yourself asking, "Why didn't I read this book first?"
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. In the fourth chapter - In Google We Trust - Andrea posits that the "Internet responds to curiosity as much as it creates it" but argues that "searching for answers" isn't the same thing as answering questions. Then she quotes me: "Certainly we're in far better shape, in terms of tools and ability, for deep inquiry than we used to be."
Not so fast, argues Andrea. "When I survey the search engine landscape, I see conditions that are less than inspiring of 'deep inquiry' especially for our youngest. I see the formation of habits of mind characterized by a dangerous lack of discernment." And young people, she says, bounce around as guileless link and search-box addicts, mistaking the search-cut-paste process for deep inquiry.
This is undoubtedly true in many instances. I've seen it. But I'm not sure it's a bigger problem than the use of Cliff Notes or the Xerox machine by earlier generations. In the end, I'm not sure young Americans really are less inquisitive. That may be because of the field I've worked in for the last decade - progressive causes and philanthropy - tends to attract young, enthusiastic professionals who won't take no for an answer and seem to question everything. Then too, the social entrepreneurs I profiled in my book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World were similarly driven to challenge every status quo they found - and to use digital technology to do so. Finally, my own three children are constantly questioning things that I tend to think of as settled subject matter, with no hesitation to challenge and probe and looks things up. They don't necessarily follow the leader.
Nonetheless, The Death of Why is an important book - and I think it's particularly timely, given the challenges that major American institutions (like big newspapers and Federal agencies) are facing in an increasingly crowd-sourced era. It's a great book for journalists concerned that the so-called "link economy" leaves serious inquiry out in the cold - and for e-government types who seek to go beyond merely making information available in vast databases but to actually encourage citizen involvement in our republic.
And this goes for newspapers, whose approaching demise the author mourns loudly. Currying no favor with the digerati, Andrea argues (and I agree) that the decline of news organizations is bad for democracy and that it's unlikely that blogs and online specialty sites will rise to replace the full gamut of professional journalism. "When you start the day with the newspaper," she writes, " you start with the recognition that you are a person in the world, with a need and responsibility to engage."
Throughout the book, Andrea decries the echo chamber of modern information and communications - the trend toward finding what you want (the viewpoint you already support) rather than coming across something you didn't know. That "self-segregation" does indeed permeate much of what we take as political dialogue for instance. Andrea decries the national political process in the modern age, panning the 2008 Presidential debates between Senators Obama and McCain as flimsy and personality-driven, and slyly pointing out that Hillary Clinton's campaign was rejuvenated when she came out of the bubble and started taking tough, unscripted questions. "The irony is that the candidates need not fear questioning," she says.
Perhaps the best quality of The Death of Why lies in its inherent skepticism toward what we've come to accept as the right way to approach learning, particularly public education. Andrea's a bit young for curmudgeon status, but her gruff and skeptical take on so-called "financial literacy" is welcome. So much of this kind of education is really marketing, priming the sales pump for future consumers. And if that passes for inquiry, we're in serious trouble. Writes Andrea: "Our democracy will suffer if the youngest among us grow up thinking that today's society and the economy that sustains it are working just as they should."
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.