The Death of Why: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy
Andrea Batista Schlesinger’s commentary has a simple thesis. An inquisitive attitude is essential to dutiful citizenship in a democracy, and the attitude is waning among American youths. Teenagers and 20-year-olds in the United States have little curiosity about the workings of government, they don’t follow the actions of their representatives, they don’t read the newspaper or watch the network news, and, worst of all, they don’t care—or at least they are taught not to. The institutions that should inspire civic inquiry—schools, media, governments—fail their responsibility, sometimes deliberately so, and the rising generation follows their lead. We’ve lost the crucial interrogative “Why?”
This is not to say that questions don’t happen and media don’t expose the workings of power. Those things circulate all the time, but they get lost in the flood of information and 24/7 news cycles. Furthermore, other forces squelch young people’s curiosity about such matters. They include:
- Parenting styles that emphasize self-esteem and praise, with the effect of discouraging the kind of intellectual struggles that come with civic inquiry.
- Google, which allows over-fast results to questioning, disallowing lengthier, serendipitous ways of searching.
- The Web, which allows users to customize their connections to the world, linking them to things that already interest them and people that already agree with them.
- School curricula that aim to produce effective and obedient workers, not independent thinkers.
- Media that downplay investigative journalism and reporting on the facts, instead offering pundits and personalities that opine and rant.
It’s a consumerist, individualist era, Schlesinger maintains, and people eschew the labor of examination. “I see an environment that prizes projections of certainty over the wisdom gained from questioning, and questioning again,” she says (page 5). Whereas the Internet, politicians, and media promise a world ever-more respectful of public opinion, audience tastes, and empowered users, in truth, “I see us asking our media, our politicians, our self-help gurus for an answer, any answer, to help us understand the world around us.” Indeed, therein lies the real attraction of the Internet—not that it opens people to the world and inspires their curiosity, but that it delivers quick and handy resolutions to their confusions and uncertainties.
Schlesinger sprinkles illustrations in the commentary to flesh out the message. An appearance with Lou Dobbs on CNN to discuss immigration, a conservative commentator writing about social justice education, local politicians in Hampton, VA, contending with young activists, and advocates of financial literacy in the classroom . . . they display the momentum of an anti-inquiry society. For instance, while civics knowledge among young people is abysmal (only one in four high school seniors on the 2006 NAEP exam reached “proficiency”), politicians and private organizations involved in education such as Jump$tart are more interested in courses in “Money 101” than in “Government 101.” And while advocates of digital learning such as Tom Watson claim that “the Internet encourages curiosity,” Schlesinger finds that “young people search for information online without any intention. They bounce all over the place, hopping and skipping their way through content” (page 61). The Bush Administration pledged that No Child Left Behind would raise outcomes across the board, but their testing focus, though it may have enhanced basic skills, blunted civic knowledge and critical thinking.
These tendencies jeopardize the body politic, Schlesinger concludes, and its reversal begins precisely with a rededication to a vigilant, informed citizenry that guards its prerogatives closely, but doesn’t lapse into a self-involved, my-opinion-is-as-good-as-your-opinion mindset. We need a more intelligent, querulous civic sphere, and we waste our time waiting for politicians and media to deliver it.