Essay: Politics Should Not Be Discussed

Feb 1, 2018

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler has been thinking about education - specifically whether colleges and universities are places that teach critical thinking skills: 

“Don’t bring up politics when you are at our house for Christmas,” my daughter warned me. And I didn’t, and neither did anyone else, most likely having been also warned. That way there was no chance of a Christmas-ruining argument over, what else, but the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

No, children, it didn’t used to be this way. Political discussions, even arguments, used to be civil affairs, at least the ones I remember from my young adulthood. Now, if politics are on the agenda, you better be sure everybody checks their guns at the door.

One of my earlier political memories is Dad, a long-time Republican, talking politics with Brownie, our next door Democrat neighbor. On warm summer nights in those pre-airconditioned days they would sit on Brownie’s porch stoop, Dad, puffing on his Kay Woodie pipe and Brownie with his Chesterfields. But they agreed more than they argued.

One of the reasons politics were more refined then was that Eisenhower was President. His campaign slogan was “We Like Ike,” and most everybody did. Not only did he win the war, or at least a good part of it, he had diplomatic skills. So good at diplomacy was he that he kept two of the war’s biggest prima donnas, the English Montgomery and our own Patton, busy shooting at the enemy instead of at each other. Mamie, Ike’s wife, was the nation’s grandmother, the kind of person you could see in the kitchen whipping up chocolate chip cookies for the neighborhood kids.

A little later Dad and Uncle Jack, a member of the Iowa legislature, were debating the election prospects of Richard Nixon. Dad never cared much for Nixon and Uncle Jack supported him. Yet points were made and scored on logic and reason, not emotion, and bumper sticker slogans, which is often what passes for political discussion these days.

At the opposite end of the scale is what is now going on on many college campuses. There, if I understand it, is every possible effort not to ever, ever offend anybody. Never offer a dissenting opinion, never suggest an opposing view and, for sure, never tell someone “you’re wrong.”

Back in the dark ages of the early 1960s when I went to college, no one ever heard of trigger warnings or safe spaces. Then, as this old man remembers, the idea of a liberal arts education was to challenge students, make them defend their points of view and to expose them to new ideas, new concepts and new approaches, even if they were unpopular or uncomfortable.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Professor Alsten’s American History lectures. Let me paraphrase how he began every semester. “As we journey through the history of the 19th century,” he began, “keep in mind there are winners and losers, and the winners write the history books. It’s my task to show you another side of American history, one you will often find uncomfortable and contrary to what you have been previously taught.” I’m not alone in his praise. He was often listed as one of the ten best professors at the University of Iowa.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s employees. Granted, the workplace of today is vastly different than the 1960s when I started my career. But, while the workplace has changed, have people changed all that much? Bosses are still bosses. Work assignments are still given out on the basis of work to be done, not on an employee’s likes and dislikes. My four decades of Human Resource experience tells me that constructive criticism is an essential part of developing new employees.

Well, perhaps it will all work out. Students will make the work transition just as well as previous generations. But I would feel a bit more optimistic if somewhere along the line today’s students could have had a one-semester dose of the likes of a professor named Alsten. 

Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who lives in Brookfield.