I just finished reading an important book by Andrea Batista Schlesinger, who is the Executive Director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. The book came up on my suggestion list at Amazon.com, and I immediately responded to its title: The Death of “Why?” The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy. What a way to fuel my passions for unschooling and progressive politics, I thought—two topics in one book! And I was right.
The Death of Why is a plea for inquiry, especially among the young. Ms. Batista Schlesinger writes with deep feeling about how important it is that children, who naturally ask “why?”, are not discouraged from that habit by:
- a rigid school curriculum that stresses rote learning
- computer search engines that give the illusion of easily found answers to complex questions
- the homogeneity of the neighborhoods in which most of us now live
- a media culture that values choosing sides over asking questions
- a consumer culture that seduces us into thinking that questions can be answered with products
The author presents these obstacles to inquiry clearly and powerfully, and she also details many hopeful attitudes, projects, and programs that counter these forces.
My favorite project, because it reminds me of unschooling, is the Drum Major Institute’s “newspaper breakfasts” with their college-student Scholars, in which the art of inquiry is modeled and practiced. It’s something that takes place around the dinner tables of many homeschoolers: reading an article aloud, discussing it, and posing questions about it—some that the participants can answer, and some that they cannot.
When you come to a question you can’t answer, it means you need to learn more. And, as Batista Schlesinger writes, “If you cannot formulate a question to learn more about what you have read, you aren’t really paying attention.” When this situation occurs, she notes, it does not mean that the students are not bright—only that they simply “have not developed the habit” of asking questions.
The Death of Why builds up a big focus on “empowerment civics” and participating in local politics. I found this portion of the book very exciting and inspiring. But, even without adding that dimension to the importance of inquiry, Bastista Scheslinger’s point holds true.
She writes, “”Only when people know, and ask, is there a chance that the voices of regular people will be heard.” That statement most certainly applies to our democracy, but it applies to other aspects of life as well. Our children must be able to ask questions if they are to navigate this very, very not-black-and-white world we live in.
So, in your life as a parent, as “Why is the sky blue?” changes to “Why do we pay taxes?” and “Why does this job application say I need a college degree to get this job?’ and “Why isn’t there anything in my lease about what happens if I decide to move out early?”, know that inquiry is the key to independence.
Don’t let “the death of why” happen to your child.