It is election eve and all the pollsters and news outlets are busy predicting outcomes. Well not really. The margins of error seem large this year, with predictions so hedged as to appear meaningless. Issues (or single issues) seem to have taken a backseat to strategy, power, and control. We wait with bated breath, uncertain about the future but certain that we want something to change.
What is that change we crave? Well, of course, most of us have a few specific issues about which we care deeply. We care about the future of our social programs, how we fund education, access to healthcare, and the state of the economy. There are concerns about energy and transportation infrastructure and the impact of international relations on how we live. Everyone cares about the supply chain, even if the complexity of it all eludes most of us. There are plenty of specific issues to attend to in this election. But, I don’t think that any of these are at the heart of the something we’d like to change. It’s a change in the discourse that we crave.
I see it in myself. Like all elections, as we near the finish, the coverage is “horse race” coverage. There is no new information, just a kind of gamblers’ commentary as we bet on winners and losers. I’m no gambler, so I switch to music instead of the morning news. But even before the final weeks of the campaign, I have been wanting to switch to music, because I could see no honest conversations taking place. Everyone has staked out their corner, ignoring all chance of finding common ground.
Honest conversations? Common ground? What on earth am I thinking? I know, I know. The politics of running for office is always about those corners. People are playing margins and stirring up discontentment on purpose. This is the only way that candidates seem to be able to differentiate themselves. This is how they win their seats. But this conforms with only one definition of politics “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” It has nothing to do with the other definition of politics “the art and science of guiding or influencing government policy.” (Thank you Merriam Webster).
I admit that you need some of the control to have the influence. Nevertheless, I’d like to see the path to that control more concerned with the substance of what that influence would mean. I dream of conversations that are less focused on winning the margins and more on the lived experiences of our communities. I know from my own experiences, that those conversations are sometimes very strained as we try to listen to those with whom we disagree. But they can also be extremely rewarding, because we often find that we are far closer together than those strident yells to (from?) the margins would let on.
I was struck by this today as I read “What a 1960s Housewife Can Teach Us about Politics in Higher Ed” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article details the ongoing debates on the rights and responsibilities of faculty to speak freely about controversial issues. It is a timely story that helps me think about the “conversations” we are having about twitter posts that offend some sensibilities, potential and actual policies banning discussion of Critical Race Theory, and the complexities of discussing Roe v. Wade, or other cultural flashpoints in the classroom. I say “conversations” because the arguments about what to do are mostly happening in the same manner that our political “debates” are happening – at a yell, often decontextualized, and without nuance.
At the heart of the Chronicle story is the notion of “indoctrination.” This word is invoked whenever a teacher or professor, school or university brings forth ideas that contradict widely held beliefs. The adoption of evolution in the science curriculum was a moment when educators were faced with accusations of indoctrination. So are those moments when things get uncomfortable in our discussions about religion, economic structures other than capitalism, political structures other than democracy, civil rights in total, and examinations of power structures in total. Questioning the status quo is often politicized as indoctrination. But according to Merriam Webster, to indoctrinate is “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion.” To my way of thinking, then, to not discuss alternatives to commonly held beliefs is indoctrination. To discuss them is what I’d like to call education.
But it isn’t that simple, because to do this well is to be able to navigate fairly a lot of discomfort. We are comfortable in our world views and we experience discomfort when they are questioned. This discomfort is one of hardest things we navigate in education. If one believes we are a Christian nation, then questioning that will cause discomfort. If we believe that capitalism is the right economic structure, then we will experience discomfort if alternatives to that structure are discussed. If we believe that “normal” families look a specific way, we will experience discomfort when discussing alternatives to that definition of normal.
Responses to that discomfort are often feelings of anger, shame, and a sense of being diminished in some way. Indeed, one definition of discomfort acknowledges the experience of grief or distress. I might describe this as a feeling of loss, and that sense of loss can be profound indeed. That sense of loss can drive people to the extremes of a subject, defending rather than listening. Discomfort is often what convinces people that rules against these conversations are reasonable. They are not.
What is evident to me in all of this is that higher education is in the business of discomfort. Our job is to ask questions about what we do/know/believe, how we came to do/know/believe those things, and how they might be understood differently. It is also our job to try to navigate the discomfort these conversations inspire in ways that allow people to recover from feelings of anger, shame, or disempowerment they may cause. This is hard work, indeed, but it is imperative that we do so, because there is no other social structure designed to support these honest and difficult conversations.
As we approach election day, I see clearly that higher education must play a vital role in helping people move from discussing the horse race and the politics of power to discussing the paths to a better world and the politics of policy development. It is in our classrooms and our research that we can take the time to sort through the jolts to our worldviews and explore the potential for common ground. We will find ourselves deadlocked over some things, to be sure, but I think we’ll also find that those things are far rarer than we imagine. That discovery alone is worth the effort of cultivating difficult conversations in our classrooms.
Higher education must continue to cultivate these difficult and, one hopes, intriguing conversations. It is how we prepare people to become productive participants in the governance of their towns, schools, states, and the nation. It is our job to get folks used to engaging ideas that challenge their worldviews, and by extension, people who do the same. Those people are usually our neighbors, classmates, and colleagues with whom we must find a way to co-exist. Limiting the scope of our conversations will never achieve this.
Engaging dissent, disagreement, and differing worldviews is the most important job we do in higher education. It is the best way for us to support a productive democracy. It will never stop causing discomfort. But, perhaps, with practice, we can learn to embrace that discomfort in the service of finding more common ground.