Who’s Afraid of Talking about Political Rhetoric in High School?

I thought the 2016 presidential debates were embarrassing! After last week’s presidential debate, one of my junior students told her mom that we have much better debates in our classes. Nevertheless, there still are many pockets of excellence and signs that we can do better.

Samuel J. Adams of The Dispatch points to data suggesting “that most Americans are still open-minded enough to find common ground with others who disagree with them” in “Our Polarization Doesn’t Have to Be Permanent.” Also writing for The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg shared some surprisingly gentle and supportive Tweets to President Trump and the First Lady as they went for COVID treatment this past weekend, support coming from folks who are often seen as significant antagonists: Try to guess who and then check out “Our Troll Addiction Epidemic.” 

Back in 2016, I was pointing a few students to a thoughtful 2012 hour and a half conversation between classic conservative Roger Scruton and Marxist Terry Eagleton as a model of what our political discourse could look like. Scruton and Eagleton would likely have passed Arnold Kling’s “Ideological Turing Test,” by which Kling refers to the ability to state an opponent’s views so well that he or she believes you truly understand that view. With warm and thoughtful mutual attention, Scruton and Eagleton listen so well to each other and address each other a few times with some variation of, “We’re in danger of agreeing with each other.” One can’t help but walk away from such a discussion with a sense of having learned much about political knowledge and civil relationships.

As a teacher of rhetoric and composition, I have wondered over the last few years if the time was fast approaching when I couldn’t bear to use the word rhetoric anymore because of the negative connotations found in contemporary political discourse. I suppose things are getting better and worse, depending on where we turn our focus. Fortunately for our classrooms and relationships, we’ve got room to discuss the best our society has to offer as well as the worst.

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