Thursday, April 14, 2011

Democracy 101

John Merrow has a very thoughtful new blog at titled My Parent's Mixed Marriage--a catchy title to an article about political discourse, not race relations. Last night I listened to the new president of the newly resurrected Antioch College, Dr. Mark Roosevelt who is also of mixed heritage (yes he is the great-grandson of Republican Teddy and great grand-nephew of Democrats Franklyn and Eleanor). In his speech to Antioch alumni interested in how the reborn college would look, he made several points of interest to those concerned about the grandstanding that has become endemic.

He said he was not interested in drawing lines in the sand. He acknowledged that there are some historical moments where that becomes necessary, but was clear that it can not be the modus operandi. He pointed out a fascinating study that proved the oft-stated: in general people only hear what they want to hear. In this case the researchers noted that when reading, people tend to underline the portions of a text that agree with their pre-reading point of view. Roosevelt asked: why read anything new if your intent is just to find validation for your existing views? He challenged the audience to encourage students at Antioch--often characterized as a left leaning institution, to study in a more neutral way views that run counter to those leanings.

Antioch's new leader spoke to the intellectual snobbery that has emptied Democratic ranks of those who feel as disenfranchised by left wing conversation as many Republicans fleeing in disgust the extreme right of their party.

So my response to John's question of how do we get past ranting and make change, is that we need to do as Antioch is doing on a national scale. We need to re-invent our relation to "politics". That can mean creating new forums where substantive debate is encouraged, or being actively involved in honest reflection within the old ones. What I refuse to see as an answer is to walk away. There is no "away" in a world confronting the level of possible disasters that ours faces.

This of course leads me right back to the crux of our film. If we support the inquisitive nature of childhood, keep students loving school all the way through because it is a place that respects them as learners and as people, we can rebuild a democracy where ideas are debated on their merits, not on political sloganeering.

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