Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Course Idea Both Parties Should Support

       Listening to President Obama's State of the Union address  and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's response, I couldn't help but be reminded of a post I wrote three years ago. In it I decried the current political climate and wondered about the lessons it teaches children. One excerpt reads:

 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. (Full post here.)

Now I have to agree with the President's statement of regret that the situation seems to have worsened.
       One positive that I've been thinking about is what a fascinating time this would be to be a history or political science teacher. Or an teacher with a predilection to consider what I'm going to describe.
       Think about the current presidential campaign. Of course, currently the rise of Donald Trump is receiving a majority of the attention, with Ted Cruz becoming a more prominent figure.That's on the far right side. What is not receiving nearly as much attention--but is perhaps just as telling--is how well socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders is doing in the polls. So we have both extremes with plenty of support. It's a fascinating development to consider; we could read multiple, varied implications into it. Is it that people are just fed up with the norm? Is it an even further extension of the divisiveness I describe above, moving from political chambers to the larger public? Is it an Internet forum coming to real life? In many ways, both the extremes run counter to some basic American tenets, from basic human rights to capitalism. While I'm not enough of a historian to know for sure, I have to think this is one of the most extreme times in American history. Even if it's not, I think my proposal has merit. I'd love to see a course focused on the current election with, to borrow theme of Steven Johnson's latst book, a focus on how we got to now. Studying history is learning a story. I'd like to see this one told backwards--to take some of these ideas and use them to unpack history. For example, some of what has been proposed about refugees could lead to a fascinating exploration of issues regarding immigration since our founding. Or one could look at various takes on wealth and issues that spin off from that. If not a full course, perhaps an ongoing unit within a course.*
       Even if one proceeds chronologically, taking such an analytical approach to any area of study is important for another reason. Besides what kids learn from the rancor and discord, such extremism tends to strip away critical thinking and sense of nuance. So I am reminded about another my posts as well: "Help Students Pop the Filter Bubble":
Pariser writes, "Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're offered parallel but separate universes" (4). Innovation and creativity lie at the heart of economic development, yet we're removing much of what can fuel them. Our diverse world is becoming more and more interconnected and inter-reliant; yet we dwell in a world that can foster narrow-mindedness.
     With our students growing up in such a world, schools have an even greater obligation to reconsider their large-picture mission. It's about how to live a meaningful life in such a world. That means awareness and critical thinking, not mere fact accumulation. That means helping students make connections, not keeping disciplines separate. That means learning to ask the right questions, not mere bubble coloring. That means grappling with relevant problems, not made-up examples. That means collaborating with diverse groups, not working in isolation. That means learning to use powerful technology, not letting it use us. That means helping them pop the filter bubble.

This notion is, of course, directly tied to points made at the start of the post in that we can't erase the bile until we're able to develop the necessary perspective and empathy. If we can help students in this regard, then we can take heart in knowing that we care producing the sort of leaders who can fix the current mess.

*Long ago I taught an American Lit class--really American Studies--in which I took this approach. We began with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and asked, "How did we end up here?"

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