Listen to this blog post:
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.