Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.
Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.
I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.
The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.
But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.
In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).
- Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
- Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).
Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.
I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.
From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –
3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)
This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.
No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.
But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.
So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
- Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
- Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
- AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
- Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum