Why ask Why?

I’ve always felt it unfortunate “Why ask Why?” became a drink beer slogan. Now no one will take the question seriously. I tried asking it in graduate school. I found you cannot ask “Why ask Why?” and not be joking in graduate school. That’s a shame.

“Why ask Why?” is a very serious question. Academics, intellectuals laugh first. They don’t follow the truth if it means they are cancelled out, if it means their questions are not necessary. By refusing to follow the truth no matter where it leads, they expose their metaphorical hunched backs, an image from Nietzsche. When they laugh at “Why ask Why?“ they laugh with their hunched backs. The simple answer to the “Why ask Why?” question, which your professor won’t admit to, is this: Because we know we can find an answer.  “Why?” is a business.

One of the most damning critiques of higher learning plays out in the minds of 3 or 4 year old children when they discover “Why?“ as the all-applicable superquestion. They immediately start asking it to the point of absurdity. They instinctively invent the Why Game. Every time we see “Why?” asked to the point of absurdity, the Why Game, we peer into the secret functioning of the inquiring mind. Curiosity is an interpretation we apply to certain behavior. Children find “Why?” and somehow instantly recognize its torture-tool capabilities. “Why?” makes daddy squirm and fume. I like to see daddy squirm and fume. Not very nice. Behind the curiosity curtain, little Johnny is seen stabbing needles into daddy’s exposed brain. Is that curiosity? Most would not see important ramifications for adults in the early childhood “Why?” phenomenon, but I’m not most.

In the Why Game (which I regularly initiate with friends to this day, preferring the position of answerer), the asker has all the power. The asker holds the baffling power of “Why?” asked ad infinitum. The ease and yet the self-assurance felt uttering that brain-twisting monosyllable till the answerer inevitably yields gives the asker a sense of power and mission. Deep in the game, “Why?” becomes both question and answer. Whatever clevernesses displayed by the answerer are effortlessly crushed by the next “Why?” Take that mental feat and multiply it by another “Why?” dimension for me, okay? I’m waiting.  The answerer must soon yield. Most “mature” adults won’t go past the third “Why?“ because to ask another “Why?“ is (though funny) absurd, and any answer to it becomes pointless, yet mentally challenging - work without pay. To continue to face “Why?“ even when it makes no sense is a mental torture, a slavery almost no one is willing to endure.

Though torturous to occupy, the answerer position has its benefits at least for the analyst. What the answerer shows is that theoretically “Why?” is infinitely answerable. Though none has the patience, the answerer could fully answer every “Why?” into infinity future. Therefore to ask “Why?”, though it may challenge the answerer, does serve the answerer, because “Why?” ensures an answer can be found. “Why?” does have its conveniences. This counters the self-image of professors and intelligentsia as brave self-questioners, continually asking “Why?” despite its crushing difficulties. In lectures, especially in Education rhetoric, the whole question of “Why?” becomes a sermon. Students must challenge themselves with painful "Why?"s if they are to achieve the level of strength and integrity of their learned professors, who daily abase themselves with the inconveniences of intelligent self-questioning.

But if “Why?” somehow serves them, if it becomes a questionable question (and I have shown how it can), then “Why ask Why?” becomes a necessary next question, and certainly one that should be taken seriously by those so dedicated to the “examined life.“ But no. They will not go into that abstract nowhere. Too much “intellectual integrity.” If “Why?” is a business, “Why ask Why?” is like price gouging or something.

Beyond what it could reveal to your professor about his inquirer’s psychology, “Why ask Why?” would have the additional benefit of pushing him toward a different question. Case in point: consider the following randomly chosen “crisis” situation.

Kids are not reading books

Your professors ask:


Answers: the parents, the environment, the technology, the politics, the money, the teachers, the systems, the military-industrial complex, …

Everybody picks a side or combination of sides, writes books, speaks at conferences, develops rhetorics. But it’s just a business. Nothing changes as a result. The cycles cycle as if no books were written, no phrases coined. That’s because maybe “Why?” is the wrong question.

Maybe when faced with the idea that kids aren’t reading books, we should really reflect and find a better question, such as:

So what?

The kids that want to read will read. Beyond that, we must understand what reading is - an unnatural act of verbal information reception and visual comprehension. Perhaps kids’ turning away from books is part of a process of reading gradually returning to its status in the first place as a fringe activity. Reading is an extra, an artificial adjunct to our lives. A not fun necessity. Literacy numbers don’t distress me. They reinforce the truth: you don’t need reading.  You can be smart without it.

A businessman, your professor has to assume what he is teaching matters. But show me a History professor who lectures on Why Studying History is Pointless, and I’ll show you the lack of a hunched back. Show me one who when asked "Why ask Why?" gets a look of doom in his eyes, a tremor in his voice, pain in his face, and I'll show you a man who understands real questioning. When he hears "Why ask Why?" he does not think of dried beer. He thinks of vast white empty rooms of horror, the infinity of "Why?"

Sample of adults playing the Why Game from an abandoned novel by me