Over the course of my career, I taught students from grades seven through twelve, but my hands-down favorite was tenth grade. It’s the most magical of in-between years, when students anticipate getting their licenses—and when parents can use it as leverage for adolescents who might otherwise be less focused. Sixteen-year-olds are beginning to care more about the world around them, but they aren’t close enough to graduation to become jaded and to have one foot out the door.
They are also still willing to change their minds. The district where I work has long required tenth graders to complete a research paper about the complexities of an issue and then to take a stance and argue a position in a speech. Each year, a number of students completed the research and then changed their minds about where they stood as they learned the nuances of the issue. Rarely did anyone move from one extreme to the other, but after looking at all the complexities and the gray area between black and white, these students were willing to acknowledge that it was acceptable—and even good—to be willing to change their minds.
I’ve thought about them a lot this week as I’ve listened to the firestorm surrounding Hillary Clinton’s comments during an NPR interview on gay marriage. Knowing that her opponents would attack her no matter what she said, she had two choices. She could say that she had not changed her mind and be accused of doing what was politically expedient in 1993, or she could say that she had changed her mind and be accused of doing what is politically expedient in 2014.
Clinton isn’t the first public figure to find herself in such a position. The same accusation was leveled at Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in 2013 when he changed his position on gay marriage after learning that his son was gay. Politicians on both the left and the right are accused of flip-flopping, dissembling, or being downright deceitful on a whole range of issues: George W. Bush (R) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Jeb Bush (R) on immigration, Mitt Romney (R) and Joe Lieberman (D) on health care, Nancy Pelosi (D) on Bin Laden, John McCain (R) on the Bush tax cuts, Al Gore (D) on abortion, John Kerry (D) on Iraq.
We leave little room for our leaders to engage in one of the cornerstones of critical thinking—incorporating new knowledge or understanding to reshape our perspective. The Common Core State Standards begin to address this skill as early as Grade 7:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1.D: Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.
This standard for Speaking and Listening can’t be tested on an assessment, so it is unlikely to get the focus it deserves in America’s classrooms. But the very survival of our democracy depends on teaching our children to do a better job of this than we adults have done. If leaders cannot reshape their thinking and work together to find the best of what the left and the right have to offer, then we are destined to swing from one extreme to the other each time the party in power shifts.
This does not mean that our journalists should stop asking hard questions of those who seek public office. But there is little to be gained—other than the spectacle of political theater—when media personalities hammer a candidate with questions in an effort to get them to admit that they’ve changed their minds. Why not, instead, ask them to explain the nuances that led them to reshape their thinking?
Yes, Hillary Clinton got “testy” in her responses to an NPR interviewer. So did most of the politicians in the list above. But those who didn’t get “testy” were accused of being “slick,” “duplicitous,” “disingenuous,” or another equally unappealing word with a negative connotation. (And the fact that “testy” seems to be a term used far more often with female politicians is a blog for another time.)
A study released on Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press revealed that the percentage of Americans whose views consistently lie at the two political extremes has doubled in the past two decades. But—and this is a big “But”—most of us still fall into the 79% of Americans who cannot be called consistently conservative or liberal.
So why is our public dialogue so often controlled by the 21% of Americans who identify themselves at the two extremes? Here’s the conclusion the Pew Foundation reached:
These sentiments are not shared by all – or even most – Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.
Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.
So how do we change our country’s narrative? Are you a part of the critical 79%? Where is your voice? Tell me your story.