Why We Need to Ask “Why?”

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.


8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Rana said,

    This sounds like an interesting read. My kids are constantly asking me “Why” and I answer the question if I know it or we look for the answer together. I hope that I am encouraging them by continuing to be inquisitive about things myself and wanting to know the answer to those questions. Great post.

  2. 3

    Karen said,

    Wow, this is shaping up to be the winter of good books, and you’ve just added another to my list!
    Thanks, and great post –

  3. 5

    Karen said,

    Homeschooling is the perfect environment for nurturing “why”.

  4. 7

    Darcel said,

    My five year old asks why quite a bit. I answer her as best I can, like Rana said. If I don’t know the answer, we’ll look it up together.

    I remember when I would ask why growing up, and the answer most of the time was “because” That doesn’t answer anything!

    • 8

      sgaissert said,

      Yep, “because” is such a lazy answer. I’ve also overheard parents on a check-out line at the store say, “Ask your teacher” in response to a child’s question. As if school is the only place for inquiry. Now that I think about it, when my daughter was little, finding the answers to her questions took up the greater part of our days! Susan

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