by Nick Szymanis
There are a limited number of historical experiences, where a majority of the world’s population is watching the event as it unfolds. History is full of experiences that are viewed just after the fact, but the recent US election was something that happened both for 18 months in advance of November 8th, and then with a state by state surprise outcome right in front of men, women and children (in several time zones) on live stream, TV, radio etc. At a critical moment in the evening, CNN’s correspondent Van Jones echoed the mood of many viewers when to his fellow commentators he said:
“It’s hard to be a parent tonight. You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bully!’ You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bigot!’ You tell your kids ‘Do your homework and be prepared!’ And then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of, ‘How do I explain this to my children?’
The next morning, the next week – the days after the live event, have now passed. What was said the next morning probably depended on age, gender and perhaps political view. Not all kids can understand the push – pull factors of liberal democracy, they only see that a man they know by name and appearance, a man everyone seemed to be concerned about, is now elected. From the kid world-view this period is about concerned adult faces, fear, anger and the continued rhetoric about walls, certain cultures and gender.
So what do we do now? It’s not even clear that the story is over. There is ongoing media sound about what will happen next, about the strong views of groups who supported the election outcome, and those who feel it is unrepresentative, perhaps even morally wrong. Like the campaign story before it, this all seems to have a life of its own. How do we help our kids through this period and the weeks, months and years ahead?
What’s clear for the short term, is that the world is a rapidly changing place. People in many parts of Europe and North America have grown disillusioned with their status-quo political systems in the face of a changing cultural mosaic and the perceived threats to a known way of life, or secure way of making a living. Educators have always said, we are preparing our kids for a world in the future, that will look and feel very different from the one we grew up in. It seems that right now, change is happening rapidly and it is perhaps the most truthful thing to tell children in this time, that the systems built to avoid greater conflict, systems like those where we try and give everyone a say – are facing challenges in these times. The outcome we hope for is that the growing pains will be resolved without bloodshed and that a longer term effort to ensure democracy keeps working – will be taken on by the next generation of voters, maybe even our kids! This is perhaps the most optimistic and / or realistic we can be - - this week at least.
In the medium to long term it cannot be understated that our kids need to be ready for a different world, and here, there are probably 2 or 3 things worth recommending.
Let’s assume, that by “different” we can safely assume that the world will be a more populated place, with perhaps a few more pressing environmental concerns, with a different international balance of power and with more of us sharing space with people from different races, different cultural backgrounds, different social classes, different sexual orientation, greater gender equality, different values - - and so on. With the movement and interconnectedness of people, their information, their marketplaces - - the trend is clear and the time for territorialism, “othering” and going back in time will come to an end – in spite of this immediate period.
So, advice for our children? Number 1 – keep learning! Yes, there was a lot of noise made in this US election, on both “fact-checking” and the vote of “noncollege educated”. Education will continue to matter – both in helping our kids distinguish fact from fiction (without always checking their phone…) and allowing them to participate as informed evaluators in the democracies of their future.
Number 2 – keep talking! If anything – the best thing we can do for our children is encourage conversation, dialogue and debate of the key issues with each other, and most importantly between kids of different gender, different social backgrounds and different races. Part of the division in the United States, parts of Canada and Western Europe stems from lack of exposure; a lack of safe forums in which kids coming from divergent experiences can know each other, know why they think differently - and perhaps connect intellectually on a variety of subjects – big and small. Leaving this to an online livelihood only, or allowing our kids to live too much in sheltered communities – with limited exposure to a wider range of society is what breeds the hardened opposing worldviews that then express themselves with the “reaction” we are seeing now.
Number 3 – keep thinking! This is perhaps the most nebulous area of modern education, but is getting increased attention in an information-saturated time. We (and our kids..) spend a lot of time on our phones, exposed to “bits of information” – and while this easy and quick access may provide answers to things – we still need a more sustained interaction with knowledge in order to truly “think” about things, to evaluate, to critically examine, to reflect and then - - decide. Technology gives us many conveniences – that granted we could not imagine living without, but we do not yet have a long range study on how or if we still think well in a world so rich with sound bites, video clips and other distractions. Thinking does not breed reaction, it breeds a measured response - - perhaps far less exciting, but perhaps more stable in a functioning democracy.
On an acute level, Van Jones’ quote accurately captured the parent’s sense of helplessness in response to Trump’s victory. There were indeed few correct answers that night. History was being made in that moment – and like the few other truly “live” events we’ve experienced - - it’s not always clear, what exactly to say to our kids. Indeed, hope exists in the kids themselves. They surprise us in how they can already put some things in context, how they are capable of opposing views without getting too personal, how they might briefly recognize the shared humanity in each other, before judgements start to fly.
Our job is just to keep building a forum for the exercise of these skills. If and where possible, let the most divergent, most different in views and values – put the phones down for a brief period - come together for a face to face, educational experience, with as much open conversation, collaborative learning, critical thinking, debate and dialogue on the important matters of our time.
Nick Szymanis has been a classroom teacher for 18 years as well as the founding director of Debate Camp Canada – a summer camp that trains students in grades 5 to 11 on the skills of debate, public speaking and Model United Nations simulation (since 2002). In 2016, Debate Camp was attended by over 1000 students across our 9 Canadian locations, and now 2 in the United States. Full details are available on www.debatecamp.com