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By Jill A. Bolstridge

Monday, October 12, 2009.


When I was in the fourth grade at a US suburban elementary school, my teacher had a colorful wooden sign at the front of the classroom that read, quite simply, “Why?”  The first day of school, this teacher told us, her eager young students, the importance of this sign.  “’Why,’” she explained, “is the most important question you can ever ask.  I want you to learn that this year, and I want you to remember it.  I want you to always remember to ask why.”  Like most adults, I don’t remember the details of most of my grammar school lessons, but I remember those words like I heard them yesterday.


In The Death of Why: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy, Andrea Batista Schlesinger asserts that the critical importance of inquiry has been lost through the systematic discouragement of the act of questioning by the very institutions who should be teaching, encouraging, and fostering it. 


Batista Schlesinger illustrates the ways in which the media has dwindled the world of politics into a “spectator sport” which focuses on cosmetic highlights while ignoring the pressing issues facing the world, creating a society of citizens who sit idly by while the government acts, oftentimes irresponsibly, on their behalf.  She also discusses the education system’s role in producing uninformed, inactive citizens, as standardized testing has taken the place of creativity and independent research.


Indeed, the school system has played a tremendous role in dumbing down its students.  Schools no longer foster the development of independent thinking; rather they focus on teaching students to fill in the bubbles.  Since the passing of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” public school teachers have all but thrown in the towel with the rigid standards to which they must abide.  It’s all about the numbers; get your students to pass the test or lose your job! 


Forget individual growth or the development of the thought process; when in doubt, choose “C”!  Principals need to keep the passing rates of the school high or risk their jobs: which, in theory, doesn’t sound so unreasonable.  Except that these standardized tests do not measure success of learning, critical thought, nor even intelligence.  Rather, the scores reflect how well a child can take a test.  So students sit under fluorescent lighting filling out Scantron sheets for hours on end while school purchase orders are filled out to buy more bubble sheets and number two pencils and fewer books, computers, and other valuable resources.  Meanwhile, funding for the arts and enrichment has been drastically cut, without even considering the fact that these valuable programs have fostered creativity and succeeded in developing children’s capacities for critical thinking for years. 


Hence, the school systems are succeeding in pumping out a generation of high school graduates who know exactly how to provide the right answers without actually developing their brain or their ability to think, examine, analyze, and question.  My music teacher in high school had a poster in his office that read, “Every great civilization has flourished because of its arts.  Every great civilization has fallen because of its politics.  Support the arts!”  Apparently, today’s schools aren’t hearing any of that.


Even on the college level, these methods of teaching continue to degenerate the learning process.  The internet has aided and abetted this degeneration tremendously.  While the internet is, without question, the greatest tool for the widespread easy accessibility of information, the ease with which it comes also has a down side. 


College research papers can easily earn an “A” when their authors have simply regurgitated a few facts they obtained through a quick Google search.  Rigorous research and thought-provoking analysis are things of the past; just present the facts, get your “A,” and graduate at the top of your class!  This is the scary direction in which we are heading. 


Twenty years ago, a bachelor’s degree gave one an edge in the job market; today, everybody’s got one because they are so easy to come by.  And the Master’s degree is the new BA or BS (no pun intended).  But just ask today’s graduate students to provide an annotated bibliography of their research, and, believe it or not, you may just hear something as astounding as, “Well, I just used Wikipedia.”


And to some, that’s perfectly ok! 


As Batista Schlesinger states: “Does our society value questions or answers? I discover that all too often the latter takes precedence, and I offer quick snapshots of the ways in which our obsession with answers manifests itself in contemporary culture. Our increased ideological rigidity, reflected even in Americans’ growing preference for living only among those with whom they agree, offers protection from the risks of inquiry, disguised in a collective cloak of self-righteousness. Why question when you just know — and everyone in your town, everyone in your social network, really knows — that something is true? We encourage the media to do more opining and less reporting because we want to be told how to interpret events as they unfold — preferably if that interpretation squares with our political ideology.”


How does this scary reality further pervade grand society?  Just look at how fat & happy we all are!  Obama won the election, and the battle was won – no need to look any farther than that!  Just sit back while he makes decisions and enjoy the video footage of him cheering on Tony Hawk skateboarding through the White House.  And don’t forget to pick up copies of People, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone to get the latest scoop and most recent sexy photos of your nation’s leader.


Driving down any street in the US, one can see bumper stickers that read, “African Americans for Obama,” “Latinos for Obama,” “Women for Obama,” the list goes on and on. 


Yet what are the proud donners of these bumper stickers actually “for”?  Are they in support of Obama’s politics, initiatives, and actions?  Or are they simply proud to be a supporter of this trendy new leader from within the context of their specific ethnic or gender-oriented demographic?  Have they stopped to question what progress Obama has actually made since taking office, or do they just enjoy waving the banner?


Just look at the US’s recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan; is it simply that US citizens don’t care?  Or is it that no one even knows what’s actually going on?  Why have the citizens of the United States failed to question their handsome new president on Afghanistan, or any multitude of other foreign policy objectives?  Why have the overwhelming majority of citizens failed to question the role of NATO or the deafening silence of the United Nations?  Why has no one inquired about the state of the hundreds of illegally-held captives still rotting away in Guantanamo?  Is it possible that there are that many people who just don’t care?  Or is it just that the headphones of their iPods are too loud and the screens of their PSPs are flashing too fast for them to take notice?


In 2008, the late George Carlin stated: “Nobody questions things in this country any more.  Nobody questions anything.  Everybody’s too fat and happy.  Everybody’s got a cell phone that’ll make pancakes and rub their balls now.  We’re way too fuckin’ prosperous for our own good.  . . . Americans have been bought off by toys and gizmos, and no one learns to question things. . . . Children should be taught to question everything they read, everything they hear.  Children should be taught to question authority. . . .  Children have to be told there is bullshit coming down the road. 


They have to be warned that life is about detecting the bullshit and fending it off as best you can.  No one told me a thing like that; I was never warned about any of this, had to find all of it out for myself.  And there are still, as with you probably, a lot of things that you’re expected to believe and accept in America that I personally have a problem with, and I question a lot of these things.”


But unfortunately, George’s position is a lonely one.  The vast majority of citizens simply accept what they are told, living up to the government’s lowly expectations of them.  Mindlessly, we follow like lemmings.  And very few stop to ask any questions.  But why?


For a long time, it’s been fashionable to blame the media.  Is it just me, or is that excuse getting a bit tired?  While the media indisputably wields a tremendous amount of power in shaping the minds of the masses, and most certainly is to be blamed for a great deal of the mind-numbness that has become so rampant amongst the people, it’s high time that every citizen of the world be held personally accountable for the information he or she takes in.  This isn’t 1990, when the news was brought to us via the same handful of mainstream media corporations and we had no other options. 

True, the mainstream media in the US and abroad is controlled by a dozen or so very powerful corporations. 


Yet with the massive surge in independent media outlets over the past decade, seeking alternate information sources is easier than ever before.  The simplicity with which one can investigate alternative perspectives on world news, as well as discover news stories uncovered by the mainstream media altogether, is astounding.  Independent media is simply a click away, and most of the time, it’s free!  The speed and accessibility is unprecedented.  Yet still, the masses are tuned out. Most are too busy on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to take notice of the plethora of quality independent media sources available. And no one stops to ask why.


This makes us a society that is doubly lost.  We are so tuned out that we can’t ask why because we’re too tuned out to realize just how tuned out we are!  (If that makes any sense).  What will it take to drastically change this numb state the masses have reached?  New leadership, new government, new media?  Perhaps.  But once again, that’s just passing the buck. 


Personal responsibility needs to be immediately and unconditionally undertaken.  The independent investigation of truth has to come from within the hearts and minds of individuals.  Only then will the collective have the capacity for significant change.  As the late great Jacko once told the world, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”  If only we had actually been listening.


Jill Bolstridge is with Ricenpeas.com,where this piece first appeared.



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