Education as Political Vaccination


It’s cold and flu season, when our immune systems encounter this year’s strains.  It’s also election season, when the body politic is assailed by this season’s political rhetoric.  A massively simplified conception of a vaccine is the injection into the body of an agent which familiarizes the body’s immune system with a bacteria or virus, prompting the body to prepare itself against the future arrival of that strain.

Our educational system needs to do this with political arguments.  Education as political vaccination.  We need to bring debate and rhetoric classes back into the curriculum.  Vaccinate our children against the most common strains of manipulative reasoning, and that investment will eventually result in a better political environment.

I think most people would agree that, in an ideal world, they want to see civil political discourse.  We want candidates explaining their positions and their best ideas, drawing clear but professional contrasts between themselves and their opponents, and drawing upon whatever characteristics or experience they have to show why they would be dutiful and superior public servants.  We don’t get that.  Instead, we get xenophobia, racism, classicism, personal attacks, money, volume, fear and manipulation.  The life of our political arena is rich, nasty, brutish and cyclical.  Constitution-as-holy-scripture seems to be this season’s political H1N1.

a common political ad, in a nutshell

Virtually all underhanded and deceitful political strategies being employed today are not new.  They have been around for as long as there have been manipulative people seeking power.  No matter whether they are used by liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, bakers or dentists.  They are not new.  And they are not helpful.  They do not allow us to make better decisions about who should represent us in government.  In fact, they cloud our judgement.  A candidate’s talent for scaring the locals about his opponent’s possible “otherness” does not prove his qualifications to be county treasurer.

(To listen to our national political discourse is to be told that America is a nation filled entirely with honest, hard-working, humble Christians and that the only disreputable people anywhere are the ones seeking election (or re-election).  If only one of those honest guys would run for office, right?)

We’re getting this kind of politicking because it works.  Through our susceptibility to campaign tactics that do not accurately reflect the candidates’ abilities for the job, we have created (and are responsible for) that oily sheen on politicians’ fur that makes us wretch when we breathe too deeply.

I believe we have created a national political atmosphere where your opponent’s failure is your success, and where no progress is preferable to progress credited to your opponent.  Better the ship sink, than the other guy save the day.  I believe this is profoundly obnoxious at best, and dangerous to the country’s livelihood and long-term prospects at worst.  One way to stem this infection is to teach our children to identify some of the most common forms of manipulative and disingenuous argument.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Teacher, what’s a straw man argument again?

Dissect political campaigns in the classroom.  Examine historical examples of political and social oppression, not just for what happened but how it happened and why it worked.  If our children know that correlation does not imply causation (“Our state has lost X jobs while my opponent was in office”), if they know what it means to demand negative proof (“Prove Obama isn’t a Muslim”), and if they know that statistics are only as reliable as the person quoting them (any budgetary conversation of any kind), we can force future politicians to raise their game.

Do this with debate class.  Rhetorical lessons.  Use scenarios to allow students to employ these techniques for themselves.  Teach students about the times in history when tricky concepts like patriotism, religion, and “the Other” have been used as weapons.  Explain how and why these arguments work, and that people seeking power will attempt to use them again.  Expose students to these germs early, so when they hear them again as voting adults, they will demand more from the speaker.

Teach our children humility in the face of a complicated world.  Vaccinate the body politic.  Give our children a healthy skepticism of easy answers, too-bad-to-not-be-true accusations, and anyone who wants to be in charge.  Future generations might demand more from their elected leaders, and we will eventually get the leaders we want, not just the leaders we deserve.

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