One of the great joys of teaching seniors, and especially in the Christian Manhood class, is the ever-present possibility of a really meaningful discussion breaking out. I have one class in particular that has the propensity to ask interesting - some might say “off the wall” - questions, and they afford me the opportunity to share some thoughts with them but also to raise some questions that don’t often get asked in our particularly polarized times.
On several occasions over the past couple of weeks our discussion turned to a number of areas where tensions and blood pressure run high: the change of the name of the Cleveland baseball team, the purpose of monuments to famous people, and the question of proper consequences for emails and social media posts that contain inappropriate and discriminatory language.
It was a joy to have a discussion where people had differing opinions, but all sides - as there are often more than two sides - were heard and respected.
This sort of classroom event is what educators like to call “a teachable moment” and as the moderator of the discussion I was able to bring to light certain things that the participants had not thought about or had not thought about in this particular way.
There were a number of questions that I proposed about each topic as we did our best to dive headfirst into the centuries-old method of education known as Socratic dialogue. Each question led not to a definitive answer, but to a new question. We travelled a road that led us closer to the heart of the matter of each issue, yet we never got to the end. First of all, we only had seventy minutes, but we were also tackling questions that began with specific factual situations and led to universal principles like justice, truth, and goodness.
We also looked beyond the situations themselves to their presentation in various media. The irony of people who generally do not believe in moral absolutes making declarations on the absolute rightness or wrongness of people’s actions in areas of controversy was not lost on us. Nor was the fact that people tend to get their information only from sources that will reinforce their beliefs on whether team names should change, whether statues should be brought down, or whether discriminatory statements should be career-destroying.
For a number of years, and especially since the onset of COVID, people have been so polarized that they can’t or won’t step out of their entrenched positions. Not only won’t people listen to opposing positions, but in many cases they simply can’t listen to each other - one group is tuned to AM talk radio and the other is hooked on NPR.
A classroom, especially in a Jesuit school, should be one of the places where people not only can, but must, listen to opposing viewpoints. Schools are meant to be sacred places where arguments are based on logic and reason and not on simplistic slogans that make their way to lawn signs or bumper stickers. Our goal should be to move beyond the rhetoric and to bring our students to an essential respect for other people and their convictions, especially when they have fundamental disagreements.
There are some very interesting videos on YouTube where people who have fundamental disagreements meet for the first time and have a real conversation rather than a shouting match. These videos, given the title “Worlds Apart”, show two people sitting at a table together, sharing their thoughts, and showing the audience that it is much harder to dismiss someone who sits with you and who has been vulnerable and humble enough to open themselves up to you.
As in class, I’m not sure if anyone’s mind was changed on any of the issues , but the importance of seeing our common humanity amidst great disagreement is an essential first step.