How an action-oriented attitude backfires on U.S.


With apologies to Nike, if the United States were a for-profit venture, its slogan would be “Just do it.”

Few would dispute the notion that we are an action-oriented people. From an early age, Americans are bombarded with the message that actions speak louder than words and that talk is cheap.

To the extent that we do value thinking, it’s usually as a means to action. We’re taught to want solutions, find answers, get to the bottom of things. We pride ourselves in our pragmatism. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.” That’s so American.

OK, I’m not about to repeat the hackneyed liberal charge that we are a nation of unthinking dolts or H.L. Mencken’s famous dictum about “the booboisie.” I think our orientation toward action has a lot to do with the fact that our country was founded on and built around some rather lofty ideas: freedom, equality, liberty.

The reality is, we don’t see a big dichotomy between action and knowledge. Knowledge gets us where we want to go. In fact, Americans seem to have a grasp of this fact or the other. Having flattened the world of news and knowledge, the younger generations, in particular, have trillions of facts at their fingertips. “Search” has made us all drive-by scholars.

This, according to liberal think-tanker Andrea Batista Schlesinger, has only heightened our collective “obsession with answers.” The problem, she says, is that we’re less and less likely to be engaged in the questions. Quick access to facts has made us too impatient to engage in lengthy deliberation, “deep inquiry,” or discernment.

In her new book, The Death of Why?, Batista Schlesinger — until recently, the executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy in New York — makes a passionate case for inquiry qua inquiry. She links the future of the American Experiment to the extent to which we teach our children how to ask questions.

Even as society more and more limits its definition of civic engagement to results-oriented activism, Batista Schlesinger defines it as teaching Americans to discuss problems and giving them the intellectual skills to navigate our democracy.

For example, she acknowledges the uptick in youth political involvement in the Obama era — they voted, gave money, sent e-mails. She nonetheless questions young people’s depth of engagement in the political process. She suggests that it’s not enough to mobilize people to advocate for this or that position. What’s more important is cultivating long-term patient “skills of inquiry, problem solving, and creative thinking.” As Batista Schlesinger puts it, “We have the mistaken belief that even the most pressing challenges facing our country — climate change, globalization, health care, poverty — are problems to be ‘fixed’ once and for all, if only we can find the right solution and the right person to implement.”

This overwhelming preference for outcome over process is part of what has led to the ideological polarization of the country. The desire for certainty — hard facts, quick answers — in an uncertain world leads people to take refuge in political or religious ideology. Ideological solutions — whether from the left or the right — generally offer us simple answers to complex problems.

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