Geoff Johnson: School curriculum should include ‘current thinking’

There’s never been a better time for next year’s high school grads to begin learning about what really makes the world go ‘round. Whatever other competencies grads will bring with them to the other side of graduation in 2019, the capabilities and competencies expected by the Political Studies 12 and Social Justice 12 curriculum should be at the head of the list.

Political Studies 12 expects students to learn how to assess underlying conditions and how the actions of individuals or groups affect events, decisions and developments, and to analyze multiple consequences.

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Students also learn how to explain and infer different perspectives on political issues, decisions or developments, and to be able to make reasoned ethical judgments about those issues and decisions.

Social Justice 12 expects students, among other things, to learn how to determine and assess the long- and short-term causes and consequences, and the intended and unintended consequences, of an event, legislative and judicial decision, development, policy or movement.

Were I a writer of curriculum resources, I’d add a unit on “current thinking” that would include a consideration of James Hoggan’s 2016 book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, in which Hoggan and others examine and lament the sorry state of what passes for today’s public discourse.

Among other influential thinkers Hoggan relys upon to support his thesis is public-opinion analyst and social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, who is critical that much of contemporary current public discourse favours “debate, advocacy and conflict, and ad hominem personal attack, instead of dialogue and deliberation.”

When it comes to determining the public good, which many people, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe should be the chief task of good government, political debate becomes combative and is all about winning, not solving social, economic or political problems.

That, says Hoggan, is because dialogue is not easy. Dialogue is not emotionally satisfying and doesn’t make for great TV newsbites. Dialogue is collaborative and focused on exploring constructive paths to the common good. Dialogue requires patience, adherence to supportable fact and does not excite political power bases. Dialogue is not about cheap thrills, misinformation and belittling the other guy while ignoring his point of view.

Not that any of that is new. In 1985, American educator and media theorist Neil Postman, wrote his seminal book Amusing Ourselves to Death — Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, proposing that the public in the contemporary world was oppressed, not by a 1984-style government gone wild, but by the public’s growing addiction to politics as amusement, rather than thoughtfulness and verifiable truth.

Or, as musician and philosopher Mason Williams wrote: “Who needs truth if it’s dull?”

Again, with remarkable foresight about what was to come, Postman, 30 years before his time, opined that television was already conditioning us and our kids to tolerate current thinking about issues as visually entertaining material “measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational, public, reasoned discourse.”

My “Current Thinking” unit would be taking a look at the top public issues that bedevil Canada in 2018: the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipelines, global warming, NAFTA, U.S. tariffs and the legalization of marijuana. They are all high-profile issues, but are subjected more to win-or-lose debate and playground tit-for-tat, “getting even” tactics than informative dialogue.

Grads of 2019 would learn that such topics are strewn with what some sociologists and political scientists call “advocacy traps,” which render treacherous the path to problem solving through dialogue, thus the title of Hoggan’s book.

Hoggan argues that it is “stubborn adversarial advocacy which dominates our society, and is coming from all sides,” and it is this attitude that both confuses and undermines public confidence in the very institutions upon which the culture depends.

For kids about to graduate, who are beginning to assume the responsibilities of the adult world in a democracy, that’s worth thinking about and examining.

You might recoil in horror, saying: “This stuff is way beyond high-school kids, too philosophical, too airy-fairy, those topics are too political to be talked about in classrooms.”

Well, I respectfully disagree. Its 2018, and the world has changed in ways we could not have anticipated even 10 years ago.

If politics seems less civilized and inspirational leadership less common, it is this next generation who might turn that around, equipped as they will be with the ability to better understand how to make ethical judgments and how governance should be conducted. It won’t be as an “I’m right and you’re an idiot” proposition, but as the literal and symbolic place where leaders meet to develop useful dialogue about common problems.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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