I teach school for a living. From time to time, I will have trouble with a student, trouble that rises to the level of a call home. I dread these calls. They’re embarrassing, actually, because I teach juniors and seniors in high school. “My brethren,” as James said, “these things ought not so to be.”
But what is most distressing is when the misbehavior stems not from a lack of self control but from a truly foul attitude. A student with a bad attitude can, if he’s smart enough, make me look bad both in front of the class and in front of his parents when I call home.
Picture the situation: It’s been a rough day and I’m at the end of my tether, and everyone in the room can see it. (I often tell people that a teacher without a sense of humor is like fresh meat floating in the water. The sharks always smell blood.) At precisely the right moment, when the tension is at its peak, the smart-mouth utters under his breath a single sentence that has an effect just short of a slap to the face. Everyone in the room freezes. How will the teacher respond to this defiance?
But this kid’s smart: it’s not what he said, it was how and when he said it. I know that if I call home that night and report the incident, I’ll be stuck with a difficult story:
Me: “Your son was disrespectful in class today.”
Parent: “Oh really? What did he say?”
This is where I’m stuck. What he said was actually innocuous on its face. It could have, under different circumstances, been taken as harmless, witty banter. It was all about his timing and delivery, which were impeccable.
Me (lamely): “I guess you had to be there.”
What does all this have to do with politics? Sometimes it seems that the smart-mouths who used to plague their high school classrooms have hijacked our national debate. Think of the voices that get the most attention in our conversations about important issues: it’s Michael Moore vs. Rush Limbaugh. It’s Jon Stewart vs. Sean Hannity. It’s Bill O’Reilly vs. everybody else. It’s not hard to imagine what these guys were like in high school. Why haven’t they grown up? More important: why have we let them dominate our political and cultural discourse?
One of the courses I teach is current social problems, an examination of the controversies that fuel much of the national debate: abortion and gay rights, of course, but also racism, bio-ethics, criminal justice issues, religious liberty, and the like. Occasionally I’ll get a student who has been so thoroughly indoctrinated in one point of view that he cannot seriously contemplate the issues. All he can contribute to the discussion is talking points he’s heard from a pundit. When that student dominates the discussion of the issues, the anger is so fierce and the polarization so deep that all the two sides can do is shout past one another. There’s no listening, no serious consideration of other points of view. In other words, that loud and unproductive classroom discussion takes the form of our national debate, writ small.
It’s no wonder voters are disgusted and disillusioned. What they’re hearing from the pundits is the same thing I sometimes get from my ill-informed students: mischaracterization, cynicism, and constant attack. People are weary of the rants, from both the left and the right. (Was anyone else sick to death of the constant cynicism in the political ads that bombarded Ohio broadcasting in the weeks leading up to the last general election?) I would hate to think that our nation’s most important questions will be settled on the basis of who shouts the loudest or who mounts the most relentlessly cynical attack or who most skillfully manipulates public opinion.
But this is not just a jeremiad on the quality of our national debate. It’s a call for something better. And I think we are capable of much better.
We need people who are willing to conduct a new kind of discussion. When we talk about serious matters like immigration reform, abortion, gun control, and the legal definition of marriage, we need to hear from serious, thoughtful people. Loud-mouthed showmen (the Michaels Moore and Savage and their ilk) are more entertaining, but they don’t move the conversation forward. They just foul up the air.
True, the dominance of the loud-mouths is one of the reasons that thoughtful and serious people are reluctant to enter the fray. They can’t get much of a hearing in such a toxic and volatile atmosphere. Since they don’t breathe fire and call down damnation on their enemies, their careful words and reasonable ideas can sound, by comparison, weak and indecisive. But it’s the exchange of carefully worded and reasonable ideas, not an ideological slug-fest, that will lead us out of this gridlock.
Can we can talk about gay marriage without resorting to name-calling?
Can we can discuss gun control without hyperbole?
Can we create immigration reform that actually works?
We need serious, thoughtful, and reasonable people who can discuss volatile issues without rancor. I believe they are there, on both the left and the right. I call on that cadre of intelligent and thoughtful men and women to bring their insight and perspective to these debates. We need to hear from them.
Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.
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