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Politics vs. thinking

Darryl Campbell | Monday, November 3, 2008

As a liberal arts university, Notre Dame’s goal is, in the words of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, “training good members of society” through “the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery of experiment and speculation.” Yet many educators believe that education and political engagement are anathema to one another, since political engagement today is all too often simply the regurgitation of partisan soundbites, half-truths and innuendoes. Universities encourage thoughtful, critical, principled reflection on everything from medieval monasticism to quantum computing, Shakespearian sonnets to poverty in inner city urban areas; they should be equally unafraid to do the same for politics.

Everything about politics is, after all, designed to discourage open-mindedness. George Orwell observed in 1946 that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” and it seems that the problem in 2008 is just as bad if not worse; it is certainly louder and more ubiquitous. People no longer need to analyze every issue and every candidate carefully; instead, they can just vote according to their party or however their particular ideological group dictates that they should. Political ads take full advantage of our subconscious, since, with enough repetition, people will remember implication and misinformation rather than the fact that they are untrue, no matter how many times they are told otherwise. Political “analysts” on TV are typically just partisans who talk past each other in order to state the party line over and over, while giving both sides equal airtime has somehow become the antidote to bias. We ourselves have come to the point of trusting partisans and ideologues with a worldview comparable to our own – whether media commentators, political spokespeople or the candidates themselves – to give us the unprocessed truth. After all, just as it is easier to spend hours watching TV or playing Halo than to spend one single hour at the gym, it is easier to let ourselves trust the vast political machine than try to fight it, even though we know instinctively that one is better than the other.

In the face of this cycle of anti-rationalism and slavish obedience to parties and ideologies, why do academics (and more importantly, administrators) recoil at the thought of using the classroom to understand exactly how destructive it is and to begin to think our way out of it? Education is, essentially, the process by which people learn to find and evaluate information for themselves. Yet the insistence of academics in general, and scholars of the humanities in particular, to limit the subjects available for scrutiny is to reinforce the idea that academia is irrelevant. Obviously, no professor should reduce him- or herself to becoming a partisan hack; there are enough of those already. But students should be pushed to learn to deconstruct a stump speech alongside T.S. Eliot, to pick apart a political ad just like a French New Wave film, to understand party politics in the same way they understand the politics of gender. In short, they should learn first that the “intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills” that they learn to develop in anthropology, biology or English classes should not – must not – be restricted to “academic” topics, and second, that no one who identifies himself with any political party or issue should be trusted. Even if you agree with them, you would be doing a disservice to yourself if you didn’t at least try to understand their motives, biases and omissions.

There is, in short, no reason to trust anyone to make your political decisions but yourself. And, when you are deciding who deserves your vote, you might consider making a truly revolutionary step: Think long and hard not about their party affiliation, the recommendation of a newspaper columnist or even the promises and policy statements that have come out of their mouths, but about what they have truly revealed about the process by which they make decisions in the course of their campaign. To base your vote on anything else is to trust that someone else has done your thinking for you – the sort of belief that, in Cardinal Newman’s estimation, would be unbecoming of a good member of society.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in history, and wishes his students good luck on their midterm today. He can be reached at dcampbe6@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.