I woke up Wednesday morning, November 9th, 2016, and went to school convinced that my job has never mattered more.
My students came into class, a few of them non-chalant, many of them depressed, some of them happy, a few triumphant. This was my class on a very strange and divisive day in modern American history. We had just started To Kill a Mockingbird in four of my classes, and on the non-Mockingbird days, we were reading a short story by Rona Maynard titled “The Fan Club,” a story of high school prejudice, cliques, cruelty, and hypocrisy. One class was reading James Clavell’s “The Children’s Story,” about a foreign power’s takeover of a second grade class room. They all had resonance. My Creative Writing class is writing a novel together.
And this, more or less, is what I said to them:
I know some of you are upset. I know some of you are happy. Some of you may not care about politics at all. But I have come to school today certain that my job as a teacher has never mattered more.
I try very hard to stay politically neutral in the classroom. Today is no different. But it isn’t political to note that our nation is polarized. And hurting. Families and friendships are being torn apart by people’s politics. And while we have a long history of polarization, I don’t ever think it has been this bad.
We recently watched a video about being wary of the internet filter bubble. I think the fact that we all live in our little internet bubbles where Google and Facebook and Twitter and company all show us what they think we want to see has contributed to this polarization. We see only ideas that we agree with and discount all others. We never challenge ourselves to see other ideas, to try to take another point of view.
We have talked a lot this year about lenses: critical lenses for reading literature, lenses for reading the world. And we have talked about the need to have multiple lenses at your disposal. Seeing through only one lens, through your “default setting” as David Foster Wallace called it, creates a kind myopia that allows us to think that our point of view is the only real one, and the only one that matters. We need to be able to attempt to see through multiple lenses, to stand, as Atticus Finch says, in other people’s shoes.
We are reading stories right now. Some students wonder why fiction matters. Fiction matters because it develops our empathy. It is a rehearsal for real life, where we are able to live through characters, in their noble choices and their disastrous ones. Story reminds us, as Dumbledore says, that “It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
But story has a dark side as well. This election, people were not much convinced by argument and facts, but by narrative. There were positive narratives and negative narratives about the candidates. There was truth in some of the narratives. There were also lies. But once people buy into a narrative, it is difficult to convince them it isn’t true. Story can be a vehicle for Truth. Story can also blind people to any truth but the narrative they want to see. I am asking you to be wary of political narratives from any political party. They may be true. They may not be. They may be a mix of truth and untruth. But weigh them against the facts of the matter and never commit to a narrative fully, especially if you are just doing it because it feels good, because certainty is easier than thinking.
Speaking of facts… be aware of the difference between facts, beliefs, opinions, and truth. How do you know what to believe? How do you weigh the sources where you get your information? How do you tell valid sources from biased or inaccurate sources? Never get all your information from only one source… challenge yourself to see opposing perspectives. Don’t just listen to sources that play into your confirmation bias. Think.
And when you go to engage in the world, understand the difference between fighting an arguing. I’m reading Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. He makes the distinction between fighting and arguing by saying that “You win a fight when you dominate the enemy… one person takes his aggression on another.” He goes on to say that “an argument, done skillfully, gets people to do what you want. You fight to win; you argue to achieve agreement.”
What we have been seeing in our country lately is mostly fighting. Very few people have been trying to find a common good. I sometimes wonder if we Americans can find anything to agree on. Fighting is easy. It doesn’t require much thought. And it doesn’t change anyone’s mind – it just makes people angrier and more set in their ways. This is why we are talking about rhetoric in this class: to know how to resist bad persuasion and propaganda, and to know how to actually change what people think.
And speaking of thinking, that is what I’m asking you to do every day in here. I ask you to think, to ask questions. Ask questions about how the world works. Ask questions about what most people take for granted. And question yourself. Don’t fall for simple narratives. Don’t settle for easy certainty.
But do listen to stories. Fiction is often where we find the greatest Truth.
So lets read a story.
We have important things to think about.