I’m treading into potentially dangerous waters here: the political scene. Because of that, I want to make clear that I am not making a statement of support for either side on any particular issue; any references to any party or topic are purely for illustrative purposes. In fact, I take it as a point of pride that students used to tell me they could never figure out my real stance on an issue. I believe very strongly that schools should be teaching students how to think and not what to think. Plus I hold both sides responsible for the current situation that has me vexed.
The recent conventions have prompted this post. That’s because I didn’t watch much of them. I used to. I love the optimism, the faith so many still hold in the system, the unabashed hope in process and progress and better times. The conventions are an amazing reminder that we live in an amazing nation begun as a crazy experiment by some rabble-rouser just over two centuries ago.
This year I watched bits and pieces. I’m sure the same gung-ho spirit was on full display in speeches, chants, cheers, and goofy hats. But I just couldn’t muster up much excitement.
A large part of a meaningful education involves preparing students to engage with the world in important ways. At St. John’s, one quality in our Picture of the Graduate cites being “community- and globally-conscious.” Inherent in that is paying attention to and participating thoughtfully in the political process. Ideally one would do so in a way aligned with another POG trait: “bring[ing] optimism, confidence and discipline to solving problems through the use of critical thinking skills.”
Unfortunately, the current political climate not only makes this difficult. It also makes it somewhat undesirable in some ways. Politicians and their handlers haven’t exactly been behaving as role models. The problem only seems to grow worse.
Political finger-pointing and demonizing is nothing new. The Federalists and anti-Federalists fought through our nation’s founding, and the deliberations in Philadelphia were full of acrimony. In 1856 Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner during an anti-slavery speech and almost beat him to death with a cane. So there have been rough, dark periods. But over the past decade the level of anger seems to remain at a high boil. This, in turn, has led to an oversimplified, practically binary way of thinking and acting. Sometimes I feel as if the level of debate has been reduced to this formula: “You are a ____ and support ____. Therefore, I disagree.” It can become a childish cycle of is not-is too. And the enmity seems to be expected.
I’ve wondered if my perception is valid, or if it’s just a case of my becoming fed up with it all. So I asked myself two general historical questions. The first: when do I first recall paying much attention to political events? The second: what might be the last time there seemed to be so much deep political discord in our nation? Both received the same answer: the late 1960s and early 1970s, with all the issues brought about by the Vietnam Conflict. In Gallup Poll data collected between August 1968 and September 1969, 51% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans believed the war to have been a mistake, while 37% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans believed it had not been a mistake. Contrast that to 2005 poll data about the Iraq war in which 81% of Democrats called it a mistake and 78% or Republicans said it was not. (Data taken from Friedman and Mandelbaum’s That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and how We Can Come Back )This clear split also appears, sometimes in even stronger fashion, on most issues.
Both parties were once coalitions of both liberals and conservatives. For example, Democrats used to include conservative Southerners whose opposition to the Republican Party dated from the Civil War. Republicans used to include people with fairly liberal social views who tended to be more conservative in economic terms. People literally used to cross the aisle to embrace political opponents. Former Republican senator Alan Simpson tells a story of going across the chamber to hug Dale Bumpers, a Democrat. When he returned to his side, another newly-elected Republican chided him by asking, “What were you doing over there with Bumpers?” After Simpson replied, “He’s my friend,” the other said, “He’s no good. He’s a Democrat. He’s a rabid liberal. You shouldn’t be hugging him.” (ibid)
We are in this sorry situation for multiple reasons, most of which I’m sure you can tick off. So I won’t, and I’m also not going to elaborate on any of them. Maybe another post at another time, although I doubt it. Because what brought us to this point, while important and interesting, is not really my larger concern here.
I’m wondering more about what lessons young people are gleaning from what they witness. What are they learning about leadership? About constructive debate? About seeking compromise? About thoughtful deliberation? About respectful disagreement? About respect in general? About working together for the common good?
This last point is crucial. We face enormous problems—energy, environmental, financial, technological, infrastructure, international—which will require our collective resources to solve. However, we continue to squawk about our disagreements to such a degree that we cannot collaborate in any fashion. And the frightening thing is divisiveness tends to breed greater divisiveness. When and how does it end?
In the big picture, I don’t know. Perhaps when some situation becomes desperate enough that we have to pull together. In our own corners of the world, we can help children by asking questions and initiating discussions with them. At just about any age, children have reactions and opinions, often laced with insight that we can neglect in our busy adulthood. We must model the desired behavior. Simply put, to have the type of political leaders and citizenry we want and need, we have to nurture the essential qualities. It’s hard, slow, often messy work. It’s vital work. Imperative work.
I’m Mark Crotty, and I approve this message.