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The Death of

The Death of "Why?": The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy

by Andrea Batista Schlesinger

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Questions = Power

Obsessed with answers, we have lost sight of the power and value of questions. Debates over globalization, climate change, health care, and poverty will not be "solved" with simple answers, but that's what Americans are being trained to expect. Schlesinger argues that we're besieged by cultural forces that urge us to avoid critical


Questions = Power

Obsessed with answers, we have lost sight of the power and value of questions. Debates over globalization, climate change, health care, and poverty will not be "solved" with simple answers, but that's what Americans are being trained to expect. Schlesinger argues that we're besieged by cultural forces that urge us to avoid critical thinking and independent analysis. The media reduces politics to a spectator sport, standardized tests teach students to fill in the dots instead of opening their minds, and even the Internet promotes habits that discourage looking deeper.

But the situation isn't hopeless. Schlesinger profiles individuals and institutions renewing the practice of inquiry at a time when our society demands such activity from us all. Our resilience will depend on our ability to struggle with what we don't know, to live and think outside comfortable bubbles of sameness, and, ultimately, to ask questions.

Editorial Reviews

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.

Product Details

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
BK Currents (Paperback) Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Death of "Why?"

The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy
By Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 Andrea Batista Schlesinger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-585-3

Chapter One

Inquiry Is Risky, Resilience Is the Reward, and Other Lessons from Childhood

"YOU DON'T HAVE TO TEACH BABIES TO ASK QUESTIONS," Dr. Gwenden Dueker told me. "If they could ask why at birth, they probably would—and once they can say why, they say it all the time. They are constantly exploring and picking up information."

Dueker studies infants and how they learn to categorize the things they encounter. From her post in Grand Valley State University's psychology department, she spends much of her time observing babies and the ways that parents interact with them. When I interviewed her on the telephone, I could hear her eleven-month-old baby in the background. I wondered what it was like to have a newborn when your business is studying newborns. Talk about pressure.

We are naturally inquisitive at birth—this everyone knows —but we don't automatically stay that way. In a safe environment, children are instinctively inclined to explore and inquire. "It's not something that you have to teach children to do," she explained, "but it is something you can prohibit children from doing."

Exploration and discovery, the first steps in an inquiry process, are natural behaviors for infants, but the next steps are not guaranteed, because infants intuitively understand what many adults suppress or only recognize subconsciously: that inquiry is risky. Exploration of the unknown is risky. What will happen if I touch this object I'm unfamiliar with, the infant asks when she looks up to her mother, awaiting the sign that it is okay to proceed. The adult asks, What will happen if I challenge this long-held assumption, this way of life that I've always believed to be right and true—although as we grow older there o en is no one to signal that it is okay, or even desirable, to proceed. Inquiry can open us up, broaden our understanding of the world. Inquiry can lead to change. But it is and will always be a frightening concept.

If we avoid the risk of inquiry, however, we undermine our ability to build the resilience necessary to face future challenges. It is enjoyment of the process of exploring the unknown, of asking questions, that we want to instill in our infants. I believe it is also what we want to instill in our society.

Wisdom from the Crib

We can encourage inquiry through the environments that we create for our children. First, to feel safe to explore and tackle the unknown, infants need a secure connection to at least one caregiver. The research shows that securely attached children are "more persistent, cooperative, enthusiastic, and effective at solving problems than are insecurely attached kids." This attachment must be physical; it cannot be replaced by technology. This physicality is important to bear in mind as so many of us are working longer and harder, responding to the realities of an increasingly unforgiving economy, and as our young children spend more time alone in front of television shows and video games than they do around family dinner tables.

Second, research shows that inquiry in infants is catalyzed by external contact. "Inquiry is mostly fostered in interaction with other people," Dueker told me. This requirement for interaction has implications for how we raise our children but also for how we think of one another. We cannot be physically isolated from those with whom we disagree, from those who are different from us, because it is these disagreements and differences that could lead us to ask questions. We need to bump up against the unknown in order to question it.

However, even if the unknown is there, ready to be bumped up against, not all children have the motivation to do so as they get older. Just as we can foster inquiry through the environments that we create, so too can we inhibit it. In this country, we care a lot about the self-esteem of young people. We believe that adolescents with higher self-esteem are likely to be more ambitious and more successful, and so we think that if we praise our children for their inherent intelligence and ability we are giving them the confidence to face new challenges. But as Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck discovered, there's praise that leads to inquiry and praise that does not, and we have to be careful about which approach we choose to take.

I've heard immigrants to this country remark on the strange parenting behaviors of Americans obsessed with building up the self-esteem of children. It is literally foreign to these immigrants to see children praised so effusively and regularly. Although such praise is intended to give children the confidence to succeed, it can in fact also inhibit the intellectual risk-taking that leads to greater achievement.

Dweck is an expert in the relationship between praise, motivation, and achievement. She has worked for four decades with people of all ages in the United States and abroad, to understand what makes people ambitious. General opinion holds that ambition stems from self-confidence in one's intrinsic talent and intelligence. However, the results of Dweck's studies of young people go against the conventional wisdom and indicate that, rather than inspiring young people by telling them how smart or talented or perfect they are, we would be wise to praise instead their effort.

A 1998 study by Dweck demonstrates the power of praise to affect resilience and achievement. Teaching assistants hired by Dweck offered several hundred fifth graders, divided into two groups, a three-round, nonverbal IQ test. The first round comprised relatively easy questions, and the children did well. In response, they were given two kinds of praise. Group A was told, "Wow, that's a really good score. You must be smart at this." Group B was told, "Wow, that's a really good score. You must have worked very hard."

For the next round of the exam, the children were given a choice: either stay at the same level of difficulty or increase it. Group A, praised for its intelligence, opted for the same level of difficulty. Group B, praised for its effort, opted for a harder exam. The children who were praised for being smart did not want to take a risk that they would fail. When faced with a challenge, they were more worried about losing their standing as "smart" than interested in what they could learn from the exercise to make them even smarter. They wanted to get the answer right. The children praised for their effort, however, looked forward to the challenge. In their view, the process of learning was what counted, and the challenge of learning brought them reward.

Dweck believes that there are two mind-sets when it comes to intelligence. Those with a fixed mind-set (an outgrowth of the messages children are sent about their value) "shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb." Those with a growth mind-set, on the other hand, believe that one can work hard and get smarter. They enjoy challenges. According to Dweck's studies, students with a growth mindset are those most likely to succeed.

Simply by signaling what we think is most important, therefore, we can change a person's motivation. Our children can be intrinsically motivated to take action that is rewarding in itself—such as thinking critically about a new and harder task. But our answer-obsessed society is organized to cultivate extrinsic motivation—rewards, such as the praise earned from getting the right answer, even on a simpler question.

When we send children the message that they should enjoy the very process of learning, we cultivate in them the kind of motivation that will serve them as they confront the obstacles that are inevitable in life. When we praise their effort, we cultivate in them resilience that leads to achievement.

I believe there is a cautionary note in this for those who lead our nation. Our nation must be resilient if we are to confront the challenges ahead. To create this resilience, our leaders would be wise to worry less about reinforcing our national status—as the smartest, as the best—and more about cultivating in our citizenry the desire to learn, to question, and to confront the unknown.

Inquiry Builds Resilience

Unknowingly, and despite their stated preferences, the students of both group A and group B in Dweck's study were then given the same exam, a harder one. The "smart" group quickly became discouraged, doubting their ability. They "assumed their failure was evidence that they weren't really smart at all," Dweck writes. The hard-working group, on the other hand, remained confident in the face of the harder questions, and their performance improved significantly on subsequent, easier problems. They became more involved, "willing to try every solution to the puzzles ... Many of them remarked, unprovoked, 'This is my favorite test.'"

A final round of easy tests showed that "[students] who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who'd been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent." Enjoyment of the process led to resilience, and resilience led to achievement.

Practitioners that I spoke with across the country echoed this view, without even knowing of Dweck's experiments. They all linked the cultivation of a love of inquiry in young people to the cultivation of a strong spirit and persistence.

"As individuals, we learn better when we are curious and interested," Lynn Rankin of the Institute for Inquiry at San Francisco's Exploratorium told me. " at self-motivation of wanting to know something and struggling because you're so passionate you want to understand it, it allows you to persevere and cross a lot of barriers." Driven by questions rather than the need to have the right answer, and supported in environments that reward effort rather than status, these young people are better equipped to confront the unknown and the difficult. They are committed not just to the outcome but also to the process.

Our National Motivations Matter

I can't help seeing a parallel between these children who are praised out of their will to question and our own nation. We are a unique nation in our insistence that we are number one. I do believe strongly that we are a special nation. Although our nation has faced monumental challenges from the moment of our founding to today, we have overcome them faster than any other. To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice, and I believe that our nation's arc is shorter than any other.

But we are also a prideful nation, more so than most. (One study places us in a tie with Venezuela for first place, based on two measures of national pride, a comparison that has very interesting implications.) Our national self-esteem is intimately connected to our perception of America's status in the world. The risk of this association is that, like the students praised for being smart, we are less willing to engage in the collective risk of questioning ourselves or the world around us.

As Dweck's and Dueker's work shows, the willingness of young people to question depends on the messages we send them. What about our national ethos? Do we cultivate in our citizenry the belief that it is okay to question our country, and that doing so is the way that it can become a better, stronger, fairer nation? Does this rule apply during presidential campaigns, during wars, during times of economic crisis? Do we believe, as a nation, that the exploration of the unknown is a worthwhile process in and of itself, or do we attach to that kind of questioning a value that makes it too risky a proposition for the average citizen to undertake?

Ultimately, our resilience as a nation will depend on our success in struggling with what we don't know, not on our success in maintaining our image to the world. But to struggle with what we don't know, we must first encounter it—and as more Americans sequester themselves in bubbles of sameness and ideological homogeneity, we're giving ourselves fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Chapter Two

Ideological Segregation by Click and by Clique

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ON something important? 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. But we are insulating ourselves from more and more opposing viewpoints—through the places we live, the way we vote, and who we turn to for news and information—and finding fewer and fewer catalysts to question our beliefs.

Bill Bishop has lived and worked for newspapers in Kentucky and Texas, on both the writing and the publishing sides. Today, he and his wife publish The Daily Yonder, an online publication covering rural America, including places that much of the mainstream media has abandoned. Bishop argues that our country has become increasingly segregated by ideology. Americans are moving to towns and cities to live with people like themselves, who believe similar things. We are clustering "in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics." One way to see this trend in action is to look at our elections.

The increasing incidence of "landslide counties" (counties in which a candidate wins by 20 percentage points or more) exemplifies how Americans are becoming more homogeneous on a community level. Between 1976 and 2004, the number of counties in which the presidential election was a landslide doubled, from a quarter of the population to half. It is conventional wisdom, for example, that the 2004 presidential election was one of the closest presidential campaigns in history. Yet, as Bishop points out, nearly half of American voters lived in places where a single candidate won definitively. On a macro level, America is closely divided. But these elections aren't close calls in our communities, because we've moved to places with neighbors who believe what we believe and vote the same way.

Our changing demography isn't the result of mass migratory patterns such as those we have seen in our nation's history, but of people who are sorting themselves one by one. We are concentrating ourselves by belief, and the result is localities that are becoming "politically monogamous." Bishop calls this phenomenon the Big Sort.

It was in his capacity as a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, while trying to understand how certain cities like his were thriving economically while others remained stagnant, that Bishop came across the Big Sort. Despite an admission that his decision to locate to Austin was based on the same kinds of decisions that Americans are making throughout the country—to be in places that serve the food we like, offer the church services we prefer, and so on—Bishop believes that "democracy was not meant to be operating in an atmosphere where people don't meet or discuss or come across those who disagree with them." If that were the case, would we even have a democracy? When we read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we aren't exactly seeing first drafts. The Founders didn't share the same outlook on all matters, but through debate and discussion they were able to come to consensus.

There is little that will hasten the death of why in our country more effectively than raising our children in ideological homogeneity. There just aren't many incentives to question when everyone around us shares our views. And it is in our neighborhoods, where we spend so much time, that we could most easily encounter those with whom we disagree, those whose lives and experiences might lead us to question our values and beliefs.

Ideological segregation in America is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the increasing ideological polarization gripping our nation. Although some dispute the idea that all Americans are more ideological, the evidence is convincing that, at the very least, American voters surely are. Our ideological identification determines how we vote, up and down the ticket, and how we feel about the issues. In a study of the 2006 midterm elections, ideology was identified as a strong predictor of the party a voter would support. If we are more ideological, and our ideology predicts our party, then we vote by party. No need to ask many questions there.


Excerpted from The Death of "Why?" by Andrea Batista Schlesinger Copyright © 2009 by Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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