From the Capitol to the Classroom
For many of us, the events that took place at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 will never leave us. As a political consultant and former congressional aide, words failed me as I watched in horror a seemingly made-for-television scene play out in real time. As an educator embarking upon a new semester, several colleagues — both in politics and in education — have put to me this simple question: how do we approach the capitol attack in our classrooms?
The goal in education is not the dissemination of information, but educating for understanding and for wisdom. Though often conflated in society today, these elements — information, understanding, and wisdom — are profoundly distinct, though each builds off its predecessor. Political discourse today often finds itself reserved to debating questions of information — consider the energy dedicated to debating “fake news” — or questions of civility, which, while imperative in their own right, fail even to engage the substantive content of any issue. Our commitment to education demands that we elevate this discourse.
The issue today is the attack on the Capitol; tomorrow may introduce an entirely different matter that demands the same attention. Regardless of the issue du jour, the question remains: how ought we approach it in our classrooms and in our daily discourse?
Think with Your Head; Feel with Your Heart
We were made to feel emotions for a reason and these emotions are heightened after monumental events, whether euphoric or tragic. Embracing these emotions is imperative. While it is seemingly trendy to dismiss emotions we deem politically disagreeable, empathy allows us to learn from each other’s emotions. Emotions are not correct or incorrect — these are not facts — and individuals experience events differently, presenting a plethora of opportunities for growth.
Equally imperative, however, is that the same emotions we embrace do not serve to guide our reason in dissecting issues and proposing solutions. Emotions themselves are neither ideas nor arguments and have the effect of clouding one’s reason. This is the reason government agents are warned against becoming personally involved in cases and why judges are asked to recuse themselves from cases involving parties to which they are connected.
Aristotle, deemed the father of political science, wrote in his Politics (and now made famous by Legally Blonde) that “the law is reason free from passion.” The challenge comes in letting ourselves — and each other — feel emotion, while in the same moment freeing our discourse from those very emotions.
Invite Dialogue; Don’t Shut It Down
While it is increasingly popular to shut down opposing voices and dismiss the individuals who voice them, disagreement finds itself at the core of discourse and, especially, debate. The rush to “cancel” opposing ideas and individuals is the antithesis of learning. If we take seriously the task of educating, we ought to invite those with whom we disagree into deeper conversation.
Instead of meeting disagreement with dismissal, our instincts to correct may be better served by asking our counterparts to explain or elaborate on an idea. This invitation to deeper conversation accomplishes several things: 1) it lowers the temperature that such political debate can bring, 2) it places the burden of proof on the other individual, who must now reach beyond a talking point and develop the idea, and 3) it develops our own understanding beyond questions of what, where, and when and toward questions of why and how.
Shutting down discourse presents no substantive argument. It suggests an inability to err and, furthermore, that we cannot learn from those with whom we disagree. If education is to lead toward understanding and wisdom — not merely information — then this journey can only be embarked upon by inviting each other into deeper conversation.
Ask Narrowly Tailored Questions
Great communicators, whether speaking or writing, have one thing in common: focus. This is both increasingly difficult and increasingly important with political discourse. To be productive, conversations must be narrowly tailored to the issue at hand. The further outside of the topical lines one draws, the less cohesive and coherent any conversation becomes.
Discussions on the capitol attack will inevitably draw in adjacent topics, including the 2020 election, claims of election fraud, and the like. This should not, however, be a litigation of the Trump presidency or an assessment of his character and personality. While we gravitate toward these conversation points, often because they are dramatic, they are wholly unhelpful toward understanding the topic at hand. If our discourse is to lead to learning, we must hone our focus by asking narrowly tailored questions.
The judiciary employs such a standard in considering the constitutional questions before them. While news outlets and political pundits enjoy making grand statements about whether the Supreme Court supports universal healthcare or is becoming a religious theocracy, the justices on the court are asking narrowly tailored questions about specific actions and ideas and their direct relation to the Constitution. We would do well to follow that example in our own discourse.
While talking points, one-liners, and zingers make for laughs and good television, they only obfuscate truth along the journey toward understanding and wisdom. Nuance stands central to reasoned and focused discourse on any issue; rather than indulging generalities and platitudes, our discourse should engage the deeper details and complexities that surround the issue at hand.
Consider, for example, the following two standards that engage the nuances of the various questions we ask.
1) Legality (legal or illegal), virtue (right or wrong), and wisdom (good or bad idea) are all separate standards which ask different questions. Something that is legal may not necessarily be right, for example. These standards also stand separate from mere preference, which appeals to one’s personal desires as opposed to a standard. Discourse often devolves to talking past each other due to the employment of different standards.
2) Belief and practice are distinct — belief draws on questions of virtue, while practice points toward questions of wisdom. What one believes and how one goes about implementing such belief are two separate questions that we group into one when we forgo nuance in our discourse.
For example, a discussion on whether President Trump or others incited the Capitol attack should ask about the legal standards for incitement, whether that differs from what is socially understood, and what words, specifically, does one believe constituted incitement in this situation? Likewise, a discussion comparing the attack on the U.S. Capitol to the riots that occurred in major cities over the summer should draw the distinction of belief and practice: are they different in cause or are they different in practice? Or consider if one truly believes the election was stolen and a wrong administration was being installed, what would be the appropriate avenue of protest? (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had differing views on this during Shays’ Rebellion.)
Contrary to popular belief, the adage “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” does not applaud having “a little bit of knowledge,” but cautions against it, suggesting that having only a little bit of knowledge is dangerous in that we think we know what we really do not. We realize this reality when we disregard — whether out of intent or ignorance — nuance in our discourse.
Our discourse can shed heat or light, meaning the onus rests upon us as to whether our end goal is to win or to learn. If it is the latter, then our commitment is to truth, with the humility to listen and the patience to understand. If it is the former, then we best remind ourselves that winning at all costs has a cost. We witnessed that on January 6th at our nation’s capitol.
SAMUEL CHEN is an award-winning political scientist, analyst, and strategist. He is the founder and principal director of The Liddell Group and serves as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northampton Community College (PA). He additionally serves as host and anchor of the news journal talk show Face the Issues. You can follow him on all social media at @SamChen220.