#higheredWed: Election Season

This post covers both yesterday’s #higheredWed and tomorrow’s regular Friday post, so it’s coming on Thursday.

Anyway, it’s election season (in case the countless political ads and convention coverage evaded you and you’ve turned off your Facebook friends’ notifications about politics) and we’re going to be in this space for another couple of months (the debates begin next month; here’s the schedule). Those of us who work in higher education are likely planning or thinking about ways to make this a learning moment for our students, particularly undergraduate students. At the same time though, election season can be frustrating and seemingly useful only for hardening people’s opinions, not for facilitating constructive dialogue. Yet, I am a firm believer that education can come out of this madness we call politics in this country and that college and university educators can create the space to make it happen.

1. Remember the cognitive development and maturity required to engage in debates in a reasonable, sensible way. Notice I didn’t say “logical” or “unemotional.” Cognitive development theorists such as Marcia Baxter Magolda, Pat King with Karen Kitchener, and the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule) all acknowledge that emotion and subjectivity play important and necessary roles in developing cognitive maturity. Often, once people abandon the “because my parents told me so” rationale for their beliefs, the next step is to connect on a personal level through their own experiences or those of someone close to them. Later comes the ability to take those personal experiences and place them in a broader context and use evidence to determine what is more or less likely or probable. Crafting programs that engage students on a personal-level is an important aspect of building bridges for more advanced (read “more complex”) cognitive thinking.

2. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You may have scheduled a panel of speakers, a debate, or a lecture that deals with one or more of the salient issues on the table in this election. That’s great, but it’s full value will be lost if it’s not paired with time for attendees to talk about what they’ve heard with each other in conversations that are facilitated by adults invested in helping them think better, not come to whatever conclusion they prefer. I often hear people complain that debates and the convention speeches are useless because nobody ever changes their minds; they just look for justification for their own beliefs in what they’ve heard. The only way to change that is to allow students to directly engage the issues and talk with each other, not just be talked at. Probing questions that get students to explore how what they’ve heard affects them help bridge the gap to the next level of cognitive development, not just sitting listening to someone else talk for an hour.

3. Heart, soul, AND mind. There’s been a lot of talk about values in this year’s presidential election and that is a good thing. Values, what people believe about the life they want to live, what’s important to them, and how they define key concepts like success, freedom, and responsibility are fundamental to how people will make decisions and sort through the issues this fall. Getting students to answer these questions for themselves AND getting them to listen to how their peers answer these questions will help overcome the knee-jerk demonizing of opposing views that typically characterizes more simplistic cognitive maturity. For educators who are facilitating these discussions, being transparent about how your values play a role in your political action is really beneficial, especially for traditional-age students who are still crafting their own voice (what Baxter Magolda calls the development of self-authorship).

4. Panoramic views please. There’s so much talk about “the” Republican Party and “the” Democratic Party that not only makes it seem like each party is a monolith, but also portrays them as consistent over time. I bet many students would be surprised – no matter their political allegiances – to learn that it was Republicans who more ardently and consistently supported civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities in the 1940s and 1950s, not Democrats. Helping students to see the complexity of political history and present-day discussions will also help students who may agree with one aspect of their party’s platform but disagree with others. I recently saw on Facebook someone decry the possibility of being fiscally conservative but socially liberal when in fact it is entirely possible to hold those two perspectives at the same time. Showing historical examples, or getting students to find them for themselves, shuts down myths like this.

5. Translate talk into action. Inspiring civic engagement begins with constructive dialogue, in my opinion, but it doesn’t end there. Getting our students to the polls – regardless of who they intend to vote for – is the ultimate objective in my mind for this election (and any election). Part of this is helping students see how local, state, and federal politics are interconnected and why it’s important for them to remain engaged in the issues beyond the presidential election.
Unfortunately, I see much of our political conversations happening on very simplistic, lower levels of cognitive development. I believe it is our duty as educators not to cooperate with that. We can elevate the tone of the conversations with our students. When we do, not only will our students benefit, but our whole nation.

Deadline to register to vote is October 9th. Election Day is November 6th: http://www.sos.ga.gov/elections/election_dates.htm

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