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2016 November 7 - 09:14 am

Stimulating Malleable Minds at Campaign’s End

Learning Can Thrive Even Amid Desultory Election Campaign

Phatic communication comprises those typically meaningless sets of utterances that may begin or end a conversation safely. It includes, “Hi, how are ya,” “How are things?” “What’s up?” and the like, to begin, and it includes, “See ya later!” and “Have a nice day!” at the end.

Long ago, my father, amateur linguist that he was, used to like to mix up the phatic with the more substantive, “just to see if they’re listening,” he would tell me with a sly grin.

“How are things in the Australian Outback?” he asked, or “Whaddaya know “What’s up in Washington?”, or “Whaddaya know for sure?”

Usually, people nodded and smiled and answered with “fine, fine, fine” or the like, but occasionally, they were taken aback or had a second thought, perhaps even a real one.

As the 2016 election campaign rolls into its end zone, and as I continue to prepare “critical thinking exercises” to stimulate the malleable minds of community college students, I think about how questions are posed, why they are so posed, and what information is being sought.

I have been re-reading 2016 candidates’ statements here and abroad—I teach French, and part of what I teach is discernment of culturally-based rhetoric, techniques of data gathering, interviewing, and reasoning embedded in critical thought—and it is interesting, to note how people choose to attend to what, and what they do with what they have seen, read, or heard.

To wit:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has posted openly online a summary of and a link to more detailed information about the United States’ four presidential candidates’ stances on and proposals concerning 20 hot topics in science. The post is part of MIT’s Faculty Newsletter. In France, the multimedia TV5, as well as France 2, France 24, and France Inter include ongoing news streams about the latest in American candidates’ statements that might affect the world's future, particularly concerning science and education. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), for its part, offers objective views of what the candidates are saying about everything from Australia’s declining coral reefs to flooding in Florida to foreigners in our classrooms to taxes on the rich.

What falls out of these news data streams is grist for thinking minds, I believe: News gatherers and commentators, fact-checkers and bloggers, from around the world find that questions about science, immigration and economic policies are key.

And here in the United States, where the election is to take place, people are talking about email. 

How can we ensure that our students are learning substance if the candidates who wish to lead their country cannot stop dragging their diatribes through dirt? How can we literally educate, draw out of ignorant darkness, our students if they are enmeshed in messy media that fails to probe deeply?

Happily for us at the community college, we have diverse student bodies with diverse backgrounds and goals. In a recent electronic discussion board shared among my students of French language and culture, the roles of superstition and fear were bandied about. Some students wondered to others why and how superstitions might still persist in an era when so much science is around to banish them, and other students revealing long-held secrets about having to eat certain things, dress in certain ways, even transport themselves at certain times and via certain modes, if they were to ascertain a sports victory or even an “A” on a test.

In the meantime, I distributed to these learners the results of an annual survey of local residents’ fears (http://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/survey-american-fears.aspx ) and I asked them to comment: Do they share any of these tribulations? Do they have other fears that are not expressed in the list? How do they define and express their fears, and how do they react when the fearsome thing presents itself? How and why do fears change, depending upon the epoch (e.g., Islamophobia is cited as a “new fear” that has arisen only within the past decade and a half) and upon one’s own cultural background (many Australians were not afraid of environmental degradation until obvious evidence emerged of their coral reefs’ decline and of its increasing susceptibility to enormous wildfires; many Chinese had thought until recently that they could build new suburbs out into the edges of the Gobi Desert, because desertification is other people's problem, not their own.)

So, I submit, all these topics can make for what I like to call a grid of learning, horizontal and vertical: Horizontally, students can be encouraged to learn from one another and from one another's news sources, in an era when these students are hailing from many lands. And vertically, they can dig deep, asking how and why and to what benefit who knows what about what, and what are the consequences of that knowledge.

This type of learning can take place, I trust, beyond the email and sex and sensationalism that has come to dot our so-called political debating. And it can give a good answer to my father's favorite phatic question, “Whaddya know for sure?”

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