The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

bumper-sticker politics

I got a note from one of the part-time instructors here, a new teacher, who's frustrated by his students' inability or unwillingness to focus on the point of our class: how arguments are made in the public sphere. Instead, he complains, they want to just have pro-con debates on the issues, and inevitably those debates are boiled down to the most narcissistic, nihilistic 18-year-old stances:

Why worry about SUVs and pollution? everything causes cancer anyway.

Homeless people are homeless because they're dumb. it's their own fault.

This instructor is at his wits' end about this. I'm going to advise him to stay away from debating the issues—this might sound dismissive, but I'm not all that interested in most college freshmen's stances on important and complicated issues, and find it a waste of time to try to show them that even jackass ideologues like Bush and Santorum recognize that these topics have subtleties.

It's natural for students to take these kinds of positions, because having an unequivocal stance on something that brooks no complexity, no contingency, no sophistication is a preliminary, fumbling way for a young person to "join the conversation" about issues. It gets them out of having to debate things in the real world: "It all sucks, man, so whattaya gonna do?" My hope is that as we focus on HOW all sorts of kinds of arguments get made that they'll see, as they sift through ten or fifteen different stances on something, that there are all sorts of legitimate ways of looking at an issue.

The real problem, I think, is a general unwillingness to LISTEN to another voice. In a freshman-comp class, this translates into an inability to read carefully and a powerful desire to incorporate this new voice into the student's vastly oversimplified, pro-or-con understanding of an issue.

What I generally don't say to the frosh, but often want to, is "how is it millions of adults in America have missed this simple solution to the problem? If we'd only listen to our teenagers, we could realize the truth about the world: that life sucks and then you die, so WTF, man."


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