I wrote the blog post below eight years ago. It seems particularly sad that our political discourse is worse than ever. Obviously, there are no easy solutions, but I am encouraged that our debate program at Marlborough is as strong as it is, and that our teachers are asking our students to defend, take opposite positions, and eschew soundbites in favor of thoughtful, cogent arguments. I am encouraged by our commitment to deep thinking and understanding. Perhaps we can change the way we do business, one smart woman at a time.
A Good Debate Doesn’t Polarize
Thanksgiving is now over, and thankfully so are the elections, but as I was making my grandmother’s stuffing, I happened to think about my grandparents and how many wonderful and family-filled holidays I spent with my cousins sitting around the dining room table listening to the conversations of adults. My grandparents were interesting and provocative people whose personalities loomed large for us all. My grandmother, for whom I was named, was a character; highly academic, she was not the cookie-baking type, but she played chess with us, attended conferences around the country, rode horseback until she was in her mid-seventies, and was proud to have graduated from college. She prized education and encouraged us all to become lifelong learners. My grandfather was gruff, brilliant, and highly opinionated! A chemist by profession, he went into business and was retired to his extensive vegetable garden by the time I really knew him. He worked as hard on his tomatoes as he had in business. Having a plethora of vegetables, however, was not high on my personal list of accolades. Both of my grandparents were also very political – he a rock-bed Republican and she a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Conversations over meals were high-pitched and passionate, and for all the years I knew them, neither gave one inch. While most likely apocryphal, one family story had it that they nearly divorced over FDR. When my grandmother died, a part of me thought that Pop might be relieved, but, to my surprise, he was bereft and missed his wife until the end of his life. They may have remained unswayed politically, but both were enriched by their love of one another as well as a passion for great debate.
I read an article last week that said that politics today is so polarized that we do not talk to friends and family about our political beliefs and most of us maintain a very uneasy but silent truce. There is now little room for one another if ideological boundaries must be crossed. I think this is a sad commentary on contemporary life. I learned to hold my own around spirited debate and I would go toe-to-toe with my own father over almost everything, particularly politics. I was doing what young people should do - challenge, defend, find passion, and commit to ideals. I love when our students take on causes. They may not be mine, but they are theirs and as long as they are not relying on empty rhetoric or are unable to articulate a defense, I am happy just to see them defend a position, even an unpopular one. Schools must be places where students can support positions that sometimes are out of sync with those of their teachers, and teachers must honor their right and indeed encourage them to study, learn, defend, and become engaged.
Home, as well as school, is a safe and appropriate venue for children to practice holding positions in a respectful manner. I hope that we as a nation can return to spirited debate that is healthy and not polarizing, and that this next generation will take the compassion I see in abundance around the school into a public arena; that service to one’s community, to one’s country, to one’s profession will be passionately defended as well as the ideas of others. I think we can also model this behavior in our discourse with one another. If we can remain civil, even without always agreeing, and begin and end with the knowledge that it is our children who are at the heart of all the conversations, these girls will remember their childhoods filled with the excitement of ideas, surrounded by adults who respect and nurture strong opinions and who appreciate a good debate.