It’s Not That Simple


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It’s not that Simple

It’s not that simple.

We’re looking for easy explanations these days, but it’s not working. If our nation could collectively spend the same amount of time working seriously on societal reform, as we devoted to the Casey Anthony trial, we could accomplish more than we think possible. We sometimes think our system of government, the legislative process, and the nuances of policy-making are too complex for the average American to understand. As a result, we try to simplify intensely complex matters by reducing our ideas to sound bites; we make sweeping generalizations from very isolated circumstances; and we confuse opinion with fact. This, in part, explains the political polarization we see in our society today. It’s become easier to align with a category, label, or ideology as a means for making things simple. The problem is that the world is too complex. Consequently, we define our ideas by what we oppose, rather than what we embrace.

Regardless of the specifics of the Anthony trial and its outcome, this national experience teaches us some important things about ourselves – we can handle complexity if we are devoted to the topic. The news coverage was incredibly comprehensive as was the detailed dissection of every aspect of the case.  Expert after expert weighed in on the evidence and speculated about the legal tactics of the attorneys. The trial was complicated and amazingly boring to watch – typical of most trials. Complexity, nuance, and controversy were not a deterrent to many Americans who remained glued to the screen interested in the unfolding human drama. But in the end, there will be no significant consequence for society associated with the Anthony trial. The story will be told and retold in books, articles, documentaries, and movies. Yet the consequences of the policy debates currently underway in our country will shape the everyday lives of Americans for generations to come.

I was sitting with a recent graduate and asked about his experience in college. Through the course of the conversation I became interested in how he assessed the scope of his education. I asked, “What’s missing?” or “What areas of knowledge do you feel less prepared in and would want to explore further to be well rounded as an educated person?” Without hesitation he replied, “American politics and government.” My curiosity was roused by his statement and the clarity with which he made it. As he reflected further, he noted that consistent with many his age, he finds the system of government confusing and the political dynamics complicated. He wasn’t expressing this as a passionate interest, but as a necessity for his envisioned future. It was the idea that a responsible citizen needs to understand this stuff. I have come to learn many college students get their news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Perhaps this kind of coverage makes more sense to the rising generation, since the current dynamics seem a bit absurd. The grown-ups throw up their hands in disgust or in anger against the opposition. The students turn to Comedy Central.

We need to face a tough reality. If the current pattern persists, the coming generation of citizens, whose ideas are being forged in the context of the Great Recession, are on a pathway that will lead to one of three outcomes: renewed engagement, vast indifference, or comic relief. Here are a few thoughts on what we can do.

First, we need to set a much better example. Civil discourse is at an all-time low. If we can model listening more than talking, discussion more than declaration, and shared experience more than rules, we might have a shot. The relational impulses of this coming generation have the potential to redefine the future and may be our greatest hope. From their earliest experiences, they have learned to be together, work together, and play together. They are collaborative team learners. They instinctively know more about networks and shared success. They have a shared language and vocabulary. They travel in groups. They instinctively serve. Yet they look at us with an overwhelming sense of bewilderment – we’ve taught them the meaning of sharing, yet we are the worst example possible. No wonder they’re confused. We dare not lose this window of opportunity. If they become more like us and extend that pattern further, we’re doomed.

Second, we need to find a much greater comfort with complexity, and not only in high profile trials and reality TV. Those skills need to be put to work solving our deep societal challenges. Let’s think about what doesn’t work. The constant ideological bickering on television news may serve to increase ratings, but is a major turn-off for our students. We’ve taught them not to do this. We’ve taught them to put the interests of others before their own. It’s quite predictable they would walk away. Students are eager to understand. They are interested in human difference and diversity through their lived experience. They know people see the world in different ways. What they care about is authenticity. Are you who you say you are? If so, they’d like to know more about you. Further, before you tell them what you think, they want to know more about who you are and what you value. The litmus test for them is not about ideology – it’s about relationship. I have learned my voice is heard much more clearly when they know I respect and care for them. This is a rising generation that understands the consequences of broken relationship and they don’t like it. They can handle the complexity when the relationship of citizen, friend, and family is worth it. Otherwise, they will just change the channel.

Third, we all have to become learners again. With that comes a humility we’ve lost. I invite everyone above the age of 40 to pursue an experience in which he or she becomes a novice. Try a sport you’ve never played. Develop a new skill set you know will be challenging. Learn a second language then plan an immersion experience in another country. It’s time we realize how little we actually know, how over-confident we have become, and how much we need a dose of reality. We’ve ceased to be students and learners. Our arrogance will be our undoing if we don’t swallow our pride and begin to learn from each other again. Our students understand this, but if they become like us, they will squander their educations by believing they know, when the best assumption always is to accept that we don’t know.

My greatest hope for our society is the students I live among. They inspire me by their aspirations and remind me of my own journey. They are still idealistic and a bit naïve, but I believe that may be the greatest gift they bring. They are some of the best teachers I have now. It’s worth changing ourselves to make their future bright.

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27 responses to “It’s Not That Simple”

  1. Tom Carlson says:

    Thank you Mr. Putnam! I do not disagree with your assessment and find that many people today do not engage in discourse – this blog is an example of that as there were no replies to your message as I write my response.

    I personally have some thoughts on your blog, but would love to learn the different perspectives from the current and former ranks of Central College. I’m from the class of 1987 – what do some of the more recent graduates think about this message as well as those who graduated years before I did?

  2. Mitch says:

    This is my favorite blog entry of yours thus far. You really hit the nail on the head on several issues that often times bind two generations together in a battle of ideological differences. I take comfort in knowing a man such as rational and intelligent as yourself is the president of Central.

  3. mark truth #2 says:

    Some great points. I would the add need to establish relationships via a face to face cup of coffee or talking on the phone. Yes you need to keep up with social networking like Facebook and Twitter, need to be able to text but there is something to be said for establishing deeper relationships.

    Right now the world flys by as we bring kids from one event to another. What is important for kids as they grow up…. playing in another tournament or actually hearing mom and dad talk about what is going on in the world of which politics is a big part. My guess is most would answer the latter but if you looked at their actions it would be the former.

  4. Retired faculty member says:

    This is a complex blog with no easy answers to most of the questions raised. But,we do need to face reality, and that is often not evident in most of our soundbites received in TV news coverage, our declining newspapers and most current periodicals.
    Among the things which one sacrifices with retirement from a teaching career is the loss of opportunity for listening to important insights from students and colleagues. This makes it even more important to become learners, again and again.
    While it is unlikely that one could ever fully master the details of complexity in current reality, it is certain that without gaining new insights into current and future areas of inquiry and knowledge, we will very likely become indifferent or uncaring about the really important issues in our government, our society, our families and our ever- shrinking world.

  5. Phil Wandrey says:

    As I approach 50 years of age next year (Central 1984 graduate), I often reflect on our generations, especially being an older father with children ages 6, 8 and 10. We absolutely limit the “events” and social media access, for ourselves and our children, despite my working for a Fortune Top 15 technology company. Our goals are to teach our children to communicate face to face with others, value education, participate in the arts, and make a difference in other’s lives.

    I pray our society wakes up and makes this a better place for our children and future generations. We all must start with our own families, enabling our children to succeed, giving them the tools necessary to make this world a better place for their children.

    Learning the complexities and mastering the basics are key…life will not get easier or simpler.

    Appreciate your thought provoking topics.

    • Retired faculty member says:

      I had a very wise graduate school prof who told me, “Anything that can be described simply is probably not true.”

  6. An incoming freshman says:

    President Putnam,

    I admit, as an incoming member of your student body, that I get most of my news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I enjoy the comedy, and Mr. Stewart makes funny the shortcomings of the system. He also makes fun of some of the things that I have never understood about politics. It makes him seem like an all-inclusive, credible source. I realize that he only does stories that he can make funny, and that I am missing some important news. I agree with what you said– “the current dynamics seem a bit absurd. The grown-ups throw up their hands in disgust or in anger against the opposition.” It is a lot easier to watch Mr. Stewart make fun of the “grown-ups” than it is to try to understand them.

    I’ve never liked learning about the government, and perhaps that is due to inadequate explanation of the system, but it is not something I’ve ever been enthusiastic about learning.

  7. James Hekel says:

    John Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s jokes are a lot more amusing if you understand them.

    Basic civics is job of our high schools and middle schools. Is there a way as a college, Central can hold these institutions or incoming students responsible for understanding basic civics before being admitted to college?

    During discussing his new book here in Little Rock, Justice Stephen Breyer told us that Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stephens have devoted their retired lives to this cause bring civics back into our classrooms.

  8. Greg E. '13 says:

    As a current student, political science major and student senator, it is refreshing to hear the President’s reflections on this subject matter. Being a complicated issue, there are many contributing factors to the current situation for students and everybody else, but apathy, prior education, and the media all have their own impact.

    It is my hope that these concerns will start a conversation that looks inward to the Central community and atmosphere, as well as to the students and how they see their place on campus and in the world. While having authentic and engaging faculty in the classroom, political discussions outside of the classroom are not shared by a vast majority of the student body. Student desire to be involved in campus governance has been low, and there is limited journalism on campus to fill any of these voids.

    I am encouraged that things could be changing. Richard Haas’s presence on campus was very motivating and hopefully a sign of things to come. I applaud efforts by administration, faculty, and fellow students to engage the student body in many different things and hope the effort is continued.

  9. Thom Vines says:

    Number one: could not agree more.
    Number two: disagree to som extent. Some times, I think we make things more complicated than they need to be. Simple, timeless truths: God, things we learned in kindergarten, tolerance for differences.
    Number three: yes, learn, but which ever “side” you are on, listen to the other side.

  10. Sigrid (Class of 1993) says:

    I personally feel that one skill that is greatly lacking, both in current college students as well as the older generation(s), is the ability to discern a trusted news source from “news” personalities that are only chasing after Nielson ratings (or “likes” on Facebook).

    Back in the day, I remember that on campus, not far from the library, there was a quiet, secluded spot, where a wall stood with the words “The truth shall set you free” engraved in it. I did not know 18 years ago that it would be so hard to find the truth, despite the near constant access to news media.

  11. The Frankster says:

    How will be know if Central has been successful with this challenge? If we were using a sporting analogy, it would be the win-loss record that would be familiar to most of Central’s students. Sports are often the primary vehicle for the collaborative team learning of this generation. When driving through an Iowa community or past a high school one does not typically find posted the number of state championships won by their music or speech programs. It’s only the sporting championships that are displayed.

    Central has capitalized on students who wish to continue to participate in sports. While the coaches continue to reinforce the NCAA Division III philosophy of being scholar first, athletes second, has the college unintentionally fostered a “Spartan” culture instead of an “Athenian” one? Is it apparent to all newcomers that Central promotes complex, nuanced thinking? Is it obvious that the number of alumni doctorates is as significant an accomplishment as All-American citations? On NSSE data do Central seniors report significantly more challenged by their professors’ expectations or significantly less challenged when compared to other seniors across the country? If it’s the latter, the faculty had better be worried

    Self-reflection within an organization is not that simple just as Mark states. It is not a task that can be relegated to just one portion of the organization. It requires all members to be a part of a lifelong learning community.

    • James Hekel says:

      Let athletic championships be advertized. It’s a great recruiting tool. No one goes to Central for an athletic scholarship. So it’s a great way for a private college to make money.

      If you are more interested in academic accomplishments, then you need to know where to find Central’s academic journals that the students are published into and support that.

      • Retired faculty member says:

        There are a couple of things that might be significant when one reviews athletic and academic achievements at Central. If one follows accounts of significant awards at regional and national levels, Central’s scholar-athletes have an impressive record over the years, but so have our scholar-non athletes.
        Based on graduate scholarships secured, graduate studies and professional school acceptances as well as recognition of subsequent professional achievement, Central graduates rank very well among liberal arts college graduates.
        Academic performances are often less evident in part because they do not include, and are not dependent upon crowd support and distinctive performance venues associated with athletics. In addition, competitive coverage by news and national organizations is not tradionally associated with academic performance and receives much less publicity and recognition.
        In addition, athletic activities are so much a part of our U.S. culture that it is unrealistic to expect that they will not be a part of positive, successful collegiate life. Athletics teach important values of personal character which would be very difficult to achieve in any other way.
        The challenge is to insist on quality programs consistent with the aims and purposes of the academic institutions involved.

  12. Kelly Shaw '88 says:

    Some interesting comments to be sure, and many that hit close to home. I have devoted my post-Central life to teaching politics at the college and university levels, and while I agree with many of the things Dr. Putnam says about students today, I wish I could be as optimistic about the future for generations to follow.

    I have found that my students, similar to the “incoming freshman” noted above (well-stated, by the way!), are cynical about the political process, as well they should be. Never have I seen the nation so polarized, the media so irresponsible, and politicians so “tuned out” as the era that we are going through right now. However, while we can blame special interests, money in politics, and a plethora of other illnesses, I think the real problem lies in the lack of leadership among the so called leaders in politics…at all levels…on both side of the aisle.

    It is time that we teach leadership, as professors, as parents, and as citizens. We need to let policy makers know that we expect better policy, more compromise, and less self interest. I, for one, will do just that this fall, but I pray its not too late.

    Kelly B. Shaw
    Assistant Professor of Political Science
    Iowa State University

  13. Beth Downes says:

    “The grown-ups throw up their hands in disgust or in anger against the opposition. The students turn to Comedy Central.”

    The undertone of this article, highlighted by the above statement, troubles me as it suggests there is a stark divide in the College community, as well as in wider society: a them and us scenario, where the so called ‘grown-ups’ are separated from the (presumably childish) students. I strongly believe that a college community should work together, with everyone learning from one another, regardless of title or seniority.

    Treat students as children and they will act like children; treat students as adults and they will act accordingly. To see proof of this, you only need to look at returning study abroad students. Having spent time away from home, learning to fend for themselves and facing up to the challenges thrown at them, they return home independent, mature adults. We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone sometimes, and what better place to do this than at university.

    Beth Downes
    Assistant Director
    CCA London Programme

  14. Stephanie--Class of 2012 says:

    As a Political Science student who is an upcoming senior this year, I whole heartedly agree with the comments President Putnam has made.

    Being on Central’s Pella campus provides a certain degree of safety for students—we are placed inside a bubble where academics and sports become our top priorities. Painful as I may find it, I think this reflects most of our generation across the country.

    President Putnam contends that most college students receive their political news from shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show with John Stewart. Although I do not disagree this is rather ridiculous and students should pick up a newspaper ocassionally, I believe some blame needs to be put on “the system.” As children, we were trained to say the Pledge of Allegiance without being told what it means or why we say it and since then our educations have lacked the civic duty fostering that past generations have had. We are the technology obsessed, beginning of the obnoxious spoiling of children, and the constantly-disgruntled-with-their-government generation. Terrifyingly enough—we are also the next generation to lead our country.

    My response as to why my generation demonstrates such apathy—well first of all, most of us think none of it is directly related to our young adult lives. Second, I think a general lack of understanding on our part has fostered apathy. Those who watch C-SPAN and attend political activities do so because they are aware and want to become involved in the process. We complain that no one cares about us, yet we are too lazy to do the work to get noticed and make changes happen. Funding for education is cut at alarming rates each year, especially for the already disadvantaged. Why does this happen? Perhaps it is because of the typically older, wealthy, white men who have most of the control and run our country who generally do not need to be held accountable to our generation—we don’t show up in high enough numbers at elections and we don’t engage in political activities.

    I spent last fall interning in D.C., and during my semester I was required to do a Civic Engagement activity. I worked on a House bill, doing advocacy and lobbying to Congress which opened my eyes in unbelievable ways. My advice for Central: make civic engagement a requirement for Intersections students or create an entirely new, required course that fulfills some required credit. I believe Central offers outstanding Political Science and other courses which foster this type of thinking and exposure; however, not enough students are exposed to it due to their career paths.

    Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every generation needs a revolution.” Why not start one at Central?

    • James Hekel says:

      Could you expand on this last statement? What sort of revolution are we talking about?

  15. Mark Truth #3 says:

    You first wag your finger at us: “we confuse opinion with fact” and then you proceed to do just that. “Civil discourse is at an all time low”

    On what authority or research do you make this claim? Do you REALLY think that civil discourse in the USA today is worse than it was during the brink of the Civil War? the Revolutionary War? The passage of the 19th amendment? the passage of the Civil Rights Act? during the Great Depression? the midst of WWI or WWII?

    Or, does that comment just fit well with your own opinion? Well yes, it does fit well with your overall theme of berating ‘others’ for basically being shallow, for not sharing, and also for failing the students of Central whom you have for 4 years and receive well over $100,000 per student to educate.

    You also rebuke others for making sweeping judgments “we make sweeping generalizations from very isolated circumstances; and we confuse opinion with fact. ”

    Yet YOU make sweeping judgments. “We’ve ceased to be students and learners.” “If they become more like us and extend that pattern further, we’re doomed.”

    Do you ever think about Central parents? You know, the folks who are working hard to pay (or I could say “share”) $35K / year to support your wonderful lifestyle in order to educate their “doomed” children?

    • '04 Grad says:

      Well, that was constructive Mark *sarcasm*.

      I believe Mr. Putnam was just trying to make a point that we can improve and be better examples to the Central community and our society in general; as far as I understand this is a blog and is intended as a way to get people thinking (certainly got me thinking). He never passed it off as a scientific research paper.

      Speaking of baseless claims, where are getting the “overall theme of berating ‘others’ for basically being shallow, for not sharing, and also for failing the students of Central whom you have for 4 years and receive well over $100,000 per student to educate.” ?? Sounds like an opinion to me.

      You also imply that every tuition check goes from a student/parents account directly into the Presidents’ – I’m sure he is paid well to be the leader of Central College but nothing like you suggest. Besides with scholarships, grants, etc. I know I paid well under 50% of max tuition during my four years and was educated quite well.

      If you have that big of a problem with what Mr. Putnam is saying maybe you should send your children somewhere they’d never have contact with or the opportunity to have a dialogue with their own college’s president.

      Or *cliche alert* perhaps you can become part of the solution instead of part of the problem by suggesting what Mr. Putnam/Central could do differently to provide the education for your child(ren) that you’ve worked hard to provide them.

      • Mark Truth #3 says:

        You missed the point. Here it is again. Mark’s blog was somewhat illogical and quite hypocritical and I listed examples. Respond to that, please.

        That Mark’s blog caused you to think is irrelevant. If someone stole your wallet, twisted your arm behind your back, or called your mother a name that would cause you to think too.

        Also, congrats on your grants and scholarships. That spreads the costs and tuition higher for every other taxpayer and student. Perhaps this is what Mark meant when he encouraged us to do more sharing.

        Let’s all think more about Mark’s points in regard to how we’re treating the students…

        “if they become more like us and extend that pattern further, we’re doomed.”

        “we are the worst example possible”

        This is the illogical part. Mark writes as if today’s students are brilliant (they even know what is “missing” from their own education!)

        But “we” are definitely messing things up for them. So who is “we”?

        Wouldn’t it have to be someone who actually reads this blog? Would that be the faculty? The administration and employees? The alumni? The board? The parents?

      • James Hekel says:

        No, wait–he’s got a point.

        Anytime someone starts glorifying the ‘good ol’ days,’ it usually an attempt to reconstruct the past as a way to instruct the present generation, a la Confucius.

        • James Hekel says:


          Perhaps you are just bitter about the whole financial… thing.

          Private colleges make money. It’s how they survive.

          If you want education for education’s sake, go support the public institutions.

          You will not find as much support for students there.

          Or they same benevolent professor as Central’s.

          But then again, you cannot find them anywhere else.

  16. Hoosieriniowa says:

    To Mark#3:

    Science is built on theories and observations of the past and present but not a guarantee of the future. I suppose mathematics have facts. Everything else is either opinion, belief, or faith. If facts must control our social interaction then we had better fold up the tents and hope for the best that anarchy does not prevail. Of course that is my opinion.

  17. Jim Coddington Class of 71 says:

    I don’t think this generation of college students is that different from any other. My contemporaries and I (aka “older, wealthy, white men who have most of the control and run our country who generally do not need to be held accountable to our generation” and btw, who are you calling “older?”) were ready to start the revolution back in the 60’s ya know. We got some of our news from the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour and That Was The Week That Was. We were taught to share and be part of teams and “share success.” In fact I know some people who lived in communes for a while. You don’t hear much about communes anymore do you?

    I agree with President Putnam. I approve of his thoughts on how to make the situation better. Where I will add a comment is on his second, “we need to find a much greater comfort with complexity…” I don’t think the problem is that people are
    uncomfortable with the complexity. I think the problem is that too many people don’t even see the complexity. What President Putnam refers to as, “policy debates,” they see as deep moral issues that have an absolute right and everything else is wrong. If you see anything else, you are guilty of “moral relativism.” How can someone who believes that graduated income tax rates are immoral and evil, negotiate on what the rates should be? If you
    believe that it is immoral to call a homosexual relationship a civil union, rather than a marriage, how can you negotiate on the rights that a civil union should provide? When things are
    either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, there is no complexity.

  18. Leland Searles says:

    Mr. Putnam,

    As a PhD sociocultural anthropologist, I take up the problem of “complexifying” issues for students who often don’t want to face complexity. That capacity requires a certain kind of existential courage that we as a society do not encourage – not in our educational systems (postsecondary would be a partial exception), certainly not in our houses of worship (again, there are a few, but very few, exceptions), and not in the biased and polarized exchanges that count as “civil discourse.” Quickly, name a politician of any consequence who willingly sat with her or his ideological “enemies” to listen carefully and be open to new perspectives? Lincoln sometimes is trotted out as one example, and perhaps John Kennedy, but maybe only under force of circumstance.

    From my disciplinary perspective, exposure to and immersion in ways of life that are crucially different – being able to entertain complexly different “cultural logics” – is an important pathway, and so international studies and graduate field research with the Other (however we imagine difference to exist) is vital.

  19. James Hekel says:

    Please be careful, Mr. Putnam, if you include the recent events in Norway in your next blog entry.

    It is tragic, what happened there, and my heart goes out to them.

    But people die in similar numbers all over the world, often in equally cold-blooded circumstances.

    Don’t be unfair to them.