Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gotcha! Politics

When I began teaching, I taught in the image of those who taught me. If they pretended to be the sage on the stage, leaving little space or time for questions, contemplation, or discussion, then I put on the same costume. If they shamed students for failing to complete a task, then I pulled myself into a haughty posture and ladled shame.

I learned to be a better teacher, and I am heartily sorry for all those moments when I was less wise than I pretended to be and for any student victims of my inexperience.

When I retired my Sage costume, I enjoyed a much better relationship with my students. I became a coach, setting up plays for them to execute, cheering on their instincts and leaps of imagination. I stopped playing Gotcha! and started playing Huzzah! I cheered for students’ insights and inferences drawn from text and evidence; I didn’t expect them to have answers that only I could know after higher education and a lifetime of learning.

In Gotcha! games, teachers, like attorneys in court, never ask a question for which they have no answer. Good Gotcha! players also know the students are almost always unprepared to summon the correct answer.

Gotcha! games are nevertheless prominent in our culture, especially in our political culture. We can’t wait for an Edward Snowden or a smoking gun left behind for the press to find. These are chum in the waters for talking heads to yammer about who should have known and had the gift of prophecy in order to avoid the latest debacle, narrative, or obfuscation. 

The current round of accusations about NSA and Chancellor Angela Merkel is a Gotcha! Game, especially when played through House hearings. Representatives pose questions, barely listen to the answers, then like sages on the stage, deliver the answer that they believe should be the truth. And they continue to spend taxpayer money for inquisitions about Obamacare, Benghazi, IRS scrutiny, and so much more, all in the hope of a John Dean answer when they might glean some tidbit that will serve the narrative they wish to deliver.

But Gotcha! gets us deeper down the rabbit hole where no light penetrates. We can’t debate or evaluate the merits and harms of the 2001 USA Patriot Act as long as we focus upon shaming and blaming. We can’t discern truth from lies or set another course for health care, foreign relations, and U. S. law either. Perhaps most important, Gotcha! gets us statements buried in last-minute legislation to prevent a government shut-down. Senators actually inserted a requirement to revisit the legislation in order to afford them primary re-election cover. They voted for keeping the government open and lifting the debt ceiling if they were promised the opportunity to later vote declaring that they erred when casting the first vote. This sort of maneuver simply provides plausible deniability, bamboozles the incumbents’ constituencies, and deflects future Gotcha! moments.

We need to play Huzzah! instead.  We must celebrate those who noticed the suffering of citizens and created a method by which more people can access the many-tentacled delivery system known as U. S. Health Care, and we must stop shaming and blaming if we also find imperfections. Our political culture becomes one in which most people refuse to play simply because the outcomes are so negative. It also becomes one that reduces our culture to a series of notches on the handle of a gun. Players rack up wins and losses without regard for the townspeople who may be hit by stray bullets: So what if some people go hungry; too bad if innovation and infrastructure wither; who cares if the greatest number of people struggle. We won. We gotcha! Now shut up and pay up.

That’s no way to nurture and cultivate growth and wisdom. Public service inside and outside the classroom is far too important a mission to do it so badly.