I Don't Care If My Students Watch the Obama-Romney Debates
Here's a question. What would be the more responsible course for a high school civics teacher to take?
Option 1: Encourage my 16-18 year old students to watch the Obama/Romney debate.
Option 2: Assuming it would take my students approximately the same amount of time, have them watch Dr. Jon Haidt's classic TED Talk on the moral mind and identity politics; then read a little J.D. Kleinke; and follow that up with some Glenn Greenwald.
As budding participants in this perhaps haggard democracy, assuming they'll actually complete the reading (which I always do, modernist teaching philosophies be damned), which option is the most ardent use of their time?
If you thought about it for more than five seconds, then we're already on different pages. For me, it's a no brainer: Option 2, hands down.
Put another way, I don't really care if my students watch President Obama and Governor Romney debate . . . or not.
In the American history course we require for graduation at Shorewood High School, where I'm the social studies department chair, we routinely teach that the election of 1960 hinged on many critical elements of the time, television being one of them. Had it not been for television, many historians have argued, John F. Kennedy might well have ended up in the books with the likes of Adlai Stevenson, Thomas Dewey, and [in a month, most likely] Mitt Romney. Nixon had entirely substantive answers on paper. But Kennedy was good on TV while Nixon was horrible. America decided, at least in part, on this basis.
Conclusion selective or not, we actually teach this, and we actually teach it because it's so widely accepted as being true.
Of course, there's no way to know. The subjectivity level is over the levee for what passes as reasonable historical analysis. There are any number of sound explanations for why Kennedy might still have won had there not been any televised debates. But the standard was set, and America's love affair with television was, by then, a full blown marriage capable of standing the test of time . . . and so here we are, some 52 years later . . . ready to partake once again in what is now all but seen as a requirement for holding our highest office.
If you permit yourself to accept the "JFK was prettier because he wore makeup and Nixon didn't, perhaps due to latent homophobia" theory of the election of 1960, then you surely can't hope to actually learn anything from Option 1 in October of 2012. Why? Things have gotten significantly worse, a verdict most reasonable people reached several election cycles ago. Few doubt that the vapidity of the prevailing debate process has gone way past whether or not Checkers' owner was willing have base applied to his forehead. We've all but thrown in the towel on hoping for something inspiring or thought provoking. If anything, we watch presidential debates these days for pretty much the same reason why we watch NASCAR: The crashes. Ohhhhh how we long for the "Gotcha" moment as we traipse down that ever-thinning line between The Onion and real world politics as reality show.
So if maintaining credibility with my students means anything to me, why would I push Option 1 when Option 2 will actually provoke original thought and possibly retrofit their lens on the media's sillyness in coverage of these affairs. [More intellectual stimulation can routinely be found on Baseball Tonight.]
I took high school civics in the spring of my freshman year, during the primary season of 1980. I remember being given extra credit opportunities to watch the news and report on the GOP campaign which Reagan ultimately carried to the nomination and then the White House (Carter was a lock for the Democrats, so we didn't pay much attention to them, a fairly routine approach to the whole party in the very red part of the country otherwise known as Central Illinois). Grade enhancement as a carrot for maintaining a connection to the electoral process seemed like a good way to get us interested in the electoral process. I've dabbled with this strategy in my twenty-four years of teaching, usually getting mixed results. The kids who are interested in politics don't tend to need grade bribery. The kids who aren't interested (which is a smaller number than you might imagine) need more grade bribery than I'm willing to offer. It ends up being an unnecessary column in the gradebook when all is said and done.
But that won't matter this year because I'm sitting out the entire credit game, both extra and regular. Watch the debates. Don't watch the debates. It's entirely up to you, kids. Yes, it sounds neat when a teacher tries to "engage" students with something that takes the classroom into the living room. There's something smacking of nostalgia, the idea of having a teenager plop down on that couch with pen and paper, begrudgingly announcing, "Mr. Jacobson's making us watch the debate for class," a declaration immediately followed up with a Ward Cleaverish pat on the back from Dad, "Don't worry, son. I'll watch it with you. Mr. Jacobson just wants you to be informed so, one day, you can participate in American democracy." [The teenager should, at this point, say something like, "Gee, I never thought of it that way. I guess Mr. Jacobson knows what he's doing after all, huh?"].
But nostalgia frequently doesn't translate into anything meaningful or educational when applied to the latter day. That's why we call it nostalgia. And the modern version of what we call presidential debates is a fine example of this unfortunate reality. At the start of every semester, I make my students a promise by assuring them there'll be no busy work. It's the same line, and I've been using it for a while now. It goes something like this: "I don't like to have my time wasted. I expect you feel the same way. So when I ask you to do something that takes up your time outside of this classroom, you can rest assured that it's important."
Until we let Aaron Sorkin moderate these affairs, I'm going to keep my word by saying nothing.