• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Unteaching

Recognizing colleagues whose work is infinitely harder right now.

September 30, 2020
 
 

I’m writing this about an hour before the presidential debate. I’m torn about watching it, though I probably will. You’d think I’d be excited. My academic background is political science. I’ve taught debate classes. I’ve served as a debate tournament judge for years and once even stepped in as substitute coach. You’d think moments like these would be catnip. But presidential debates are to academic debates as professional wrestling is to Olympic wrestling. They share a few terms and visual trappings, but they’re otherwise unrelated.

Part of what makes presidential debates so painful to watch is that they’re based on false premises. For instance, one unstated assumption behind them is that voters are largely still making up their minds. That’s simply not true. And the few who are mostly aren’t deciding between the two candidates but deciding whether to vote at all. Another is that voters decide based on the nuances of issue positions. Again, to the extent that’s true, those voters already know which way they’ll vote. The ones who haven’t decided are almost always the least engaged and therefore the least likely to be fluent in the nuances. And anyone who believes that post-hoc fact checking is anywhere near as effective as catchy lying in the moment knows nothing about persuasion.

As I reflected on that, I realized it’s time, yet again, to tip my cap to those brave souls who are trying to teach Intro to American Government and similar classes right now.

Classes that address current politics involve a great deal of unteaching before the actual teaching really kicks in. Students are anything but blank slates; they come in with all manner of preconceptions. Those preconceptions actually block both the acquisition of new knowledge and the development of critical thought. If you already know the answers, why bother with new questions?

That’s particularly true during presidential election years.

In this field, people make handsome incomes by deliberately confusing other people. And to the extent that political positions overlap with sociological ones -- race, religion, region -- asking people to question their assumptions can come across as asking them to betray their families. It’s a hard sell on a good day.

All of that said, though, I don’t think that the serious examination of the institutions of democracy has ever been more important than it is right now, at least in the U.S. The difficulty is exactly why it matters.

So, a tip o’ the cap to everyone out there trying to get students beyond the preconceptions that some very powerful people go out of their way to encourage. It must be crushingly difficult right now. But it has never mattered more.

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