As I write these words, we are just days away from a federal election. By the time you read them, the election and its rhetoric will have faded into the contours of a Canadian summer. I don’t want to spoil your day at the lake, but as the last week of this campaign unfolds before me, I can’t resist sharing these thoughts.
As educators, we stress the importance of backing up arguments with facts. It’s not enough to claim something; you have to support it. That’s pretty basic, but it’s a lesson that has obviously slipped by our politicians. When called upon for clear evidence to support their points, they resort to the repetition principle of debating: just keep stating your premise again and again until enough people absorb it as a fact.
We also insist that direct quotations and references to other people’s ideas be cited accurately and clearly. We want to know exactly who said it and where you found it. That’s called “academic honesty” in schools; it’s just plain honesty everywhere else – except on the campaign trail. There, it’s barely given lip service. If you can convince the public that the other guy said something stupid, it’s apparently fair game – whether he said it or not. Or for that matter, whether it’s stupid or not.
Then there’s the principle of clarity. Whether they’re writing a paper for social studies or presenting a science project, students are encouraged to be clear. Can the listener understand what really happened? Can the reader tell what you really think? If not, try again, because good communication skills are essential to academic and personal success – unless you’re running for high office, in which case obfuscation reigns. A convoluted response to a clear question is the best way to prepare yourself for the inevitable misquote (see above).
If this level of cynicism makes you uncomfortable – well, it makes me uncomfortable too. Educators across the country are placing a new emphasis on citizenship education, instilling in their students a respect for the principles of democracy, encouraging them to participate in the political process, and urging them to approach rational debate with an open mind. This is exactly what they should be doing. They should also be empowering those young people to insist on the same standards from political leaders. I hope they are.
If we can’t re-educate our leaders in the basic classroom lessons about evidence, honesty, and clarity, public cynicism will make all political debate irrelevant.