I had the unique experience (for me) a little over a week ago of getting into a discussion with my mother about politics. This is not a common occurrence in the least: I try to stay out of political discussions in person with people both that I know well personally and that have distinctly different views than I do. (My father is one of these people. Strange how opinions can diverge so much in just a generation.)
But ultimately, what the discussion ended up focusing on was not a political issue – although one was the initial catalyst for the conversation – but rather an epistemological and ethical issue.
The conversation actually started because of facebook – after the healthcare reform bill was passed, there were a number of people on my friend list who decried it as the end of American civilization or claimed that we were now a “socialist” country (although they wouldn’t have known what socialism was if it hit them in the head). I tend to stray away from political discussions because they get heated – and I have always liked to argue and have only gotten better at it over time, especially with training in philosophy, logic, and rhetoric – but I couldn’t help myself with a couple of things. I pointed out the hyperbole of these statements, documented errors, and refuted false claims (especially the one that suggested that abortion coverage would be increased because of the bill – that one wouldn’t die). Ultimately, the debates got heated, I was called names (almost all by friends of friends), and I removed a few friends from my friend list as a result. (It should be emphasized here that these were mostly casual acquaintances, people I haven’t actually seen in person for years now and were never that close with.)
Word got back around to my mother through – and this won’t surprise any married man who might read this – my wife, and so a conversation started up one day when we were captive together in a car for several minutes. (Otherwise, I might have tried to avoid it.)
I need to note first that my parents are fairly conservative, having grown up in fairly conservative households themselves and having been in the ministry in Southern Baptist churches for over 20 years together. My mother seems to be leaning more to center these days, a move I credit somewhat to her diagnosis of Parkinson’s a few years ago. (Amazing how she suddenly saw the “liberal” side of the embryonic stem cell issue once it was directly relevant to her…) She has always been more open-minded than my father, anyway.
Her concern for me was in losing friends, and it took me a while to assure her that these were not friendships that were incredibly meaningful or close. But she raised the question to me: “Why is this so important to you?”
And my answer: “This is what I’ve dedicated my life to.”
I am referring, of course, not to politics or any partisan agenda but to something much more important – truth. I got into education because I wanted to help students learn, not just in my subject area but more broadly. In my classroom, I try to pull in history, geography, economics, current issues, science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and a wide array of other disciplines* so that my students know how I feel about learning: namely, that it is a lifelong process that cannot be broken down so easily into neat little compartments.
And it’s okay for people to have different opinions, really. But I suspect, as many have, that the fact-value distinction is a blurry line, and moreover, our opinions should be as amenable – if not moreso – to facts and data as they are to our own preconceptions (which are very often nearsighted and close-minded). You can’t just say, “Oh, it’s my opinion,” when you are basing your opinion off of “facts” that are demonstrably untrue. And I don’t think you get off the hook similarly when you use poorly reasoned arguments just because the end result is something we call an “opinion.” Opinions are not sacrosanct, and I think I have the right to point out – especially in public, where others can hopefully benefit from seeing flaws in arguments – where opinions are misinformed or wrongheaded.
Why is it so important for me to point out these things? Because reality is important, and ultimately, my livelihood is firmly planted in being able to understand, articulate, and express reality.† If it’s important enough for me to devote my life to, then it’s important enough to share even with those who aren’t my students, per se.
I think of education as something holistic and, following Freire, transformational: it’s not just something that should affect you in one sphere but in every sphere of one’s life. What kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t push my friends to apply the strongest and truest principles to their opinions on anything?
I just wouldn’t feel right about it. I may not make many principled stands in my life, but this is one thing I’m willing to fight for.
*I confess, though, that math still eludes me somewhat. Closest I’ve ever gotten was in getting my sophomores to do long division to figure out how much admission to a “picture show” would have cost Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird if he was able to go 20 times for $5 as he said he did.
†That may sound awfully strange coming from an English teacher when so much of our literary canon is fiction, but it really is true even for works of fiction. Ultimately, everything in the ELA classroom is about meaning, and that should hopefully reflect some kind of reality.