Monday, May 30, 2011

The Control-F Generation and Discourse (My four-fold way of talking about abortion in a classroom without anarchy ensuing)

Several weeks ago, I attended a two-day meeting in Washington where I helped to facilitate a conversation about communications strategies that might be beneficial to Jesuits in the United States. Of the things we had to crystallize were both sense of what it is that we are sharing with the world and, exactly, with whom are we sharing it.

During the meeting, a little argument broke out between two of the participants. The main facilitator seized this as a "teaching moment" and introduced for us a distinction between "Positions" and "Values." Over the last few weeks, I have had occasion to use this distinction in the classroom and I have found it a marvelous tool at drawing students into conversation by sidestepping their normal ways of thinking.

As I have written before, there are a number of observable traits in what I have dubbed the "Control-F Generation." First among these traits would be a desire simply to get the answer right rather than to struggle with the process of discovery. Emergent technology surely feeds this desire: if you are having a hard time slogging through Pride and Prejudice, go and read the SparkNotes. If you can't translate a passage of Latin, use Google's translator or just do a regular Google search, for someone has already posted the answer. For this generation, education seems to have been reduced to test scores and right answers; creative answers and innovation seem increasing marginalized.

Nowhere is this more true than in discussions of morality and politics. I am familiar with courses where students love to do combat with the teacher over particularly controversial topics. Take, for instance, classroom discussions of abortion. The teacher will generally (in a Catholic school) lay out the issue and then make the case from the Catholic side. A good number of students will agree wholeheartedly, while a few (perhaps about a third) will disagree. Of these students, only a minority will represent true opposition while the others just don't like the idea of being told what to do. So they fight. And fight. And fight. The discussion grows more heated and both sides refuse to give any ground.

Sound familiar? Such scenes play themselves out on Cable News outlets each day.

The problem is that we have here a conflict of Position. Generally, the positions we find in the classroom are as follows:


  • Thoroughly Pro-Life (consistent in its commitment to the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to natural death; committed to fullness of human life so examines issues of social relevance such as healthcare and education)
  • Moderately Pro-Life (wholly against abortion, but makes provisions for capital punishment; may or may not be interested in issues such as education and healthcare)
  • Moderately Pro-Choice (generally against abortion except in the case of rape, incest, and harm to the mother; generally concerned about social issues)
  • Thoroughly Pro-Choice (commitment to the freedom of the woman from external coercion; generally concerned about social issues)

The above is my best, albeit feeble, effort to articulate four prominent positions I have encountered in classroom discussions. I would put myself in the first category, which I take to be wholly conservative but because it is a position of 'social activism' gets labeled as liberal. Ironic, isn't it? 

I digress.

These positions, in a classroom, are often little islands, each with its own natural resources. Students dwell on these "islands" and experience any challenge to their position as an attack, so they retreat to the cannons and begin to wage war with their classmates or teacher. Each position is treated as free-floating and mutually exclusive of others.

Where teachers fail is to ferret out exactly what each group values. As I indicated in the parentheses, these are some of the values that are often encoded in a person's statement of position. Once we get into the language of value, we get into the hazy and messy area of why people have the reasons they have. In discussion values and reasons, we engage in the mutual give-and-take that sheds light on our beliefs and gives and opportunity for meaningful discourse. Instead of arguing against another's positions, we actually think through the issue with our interlocutor.

In my experience as a teacher, I draw two different charts. We ascertain the position (above, in bold) and then, on the other side of the board, we look at the values associated with each position. "What is it," I ask, "that each position values?" The students have to think with another person, taking up another side, in order to answer this question. 

As we do this exercise, I have never had any student yell at another. Indeed, they are rather given over to serious engagement. Asked to think in a new way, and without recourse to 'right' and 'wrong' responses, they actually pursue deeper questioning. They go beyond the sound-bite or blanket position and begin to do the heavy lifting of good thinking and reasoning!

Having established Position and Values, we turn as a group to offering a critique of each position. Typically, students critique the Pro-Life positions for being unrealistic: adoption is not always an option, poverty is an evil into which children shouldn't be born, all babies should be wanted, etc.. Similarly, the students will critique the Pro-Choice positions: more than one life is at stake, what about the father's input, there are people who want to adopt, etc.. 

Now, here's the exciting part for the teacher: there has still been no yelling, no attacks against each other. Because they are removed from their native milieu of answer-and-move-on and they have actually to think, the kids are generally excited about doing the hard work of thinking through complicated issues. Having offered the Critique of Values, we finally turn to an Imaginative Resolution.

By Imaginative Resolution, I mean that we look at the various critiques and try to figure out exactly where they overlap and what might be done to work out some type of compromise. In my limited experience of teaching boys, the main clash of values that emerges in the Critique is that students fear unwanted pregnancies and worry about children being born into situations of poverty and disadvantage. What is brilliant is that they start to see these as social problems, that they are our problems, and that an unborn child should not have to pay for our sins. 

In other words, one thing I found through the process of Imaginative Resolution is that the students came to see that abortion is not exclusively an "I" decision; it has both horizontal (we) and vertical (I) dimensions. This one topic - so easily given to argument and yelling - can turn into a wonderful point of ingress into meaningful discussions about society, the way we treat others, and the role of individual and group responsibility. 

I typically find the rhetoric referring to people as "Pro-Abortion" to be nonsense. I simply refuse to believe that there are people who think that abortion is a good thing. This label is so unhelpful because it does not facilitate any dialogue, any opportunity to dig into the values of those with whom we disagree. Then again, I also find the claim to be "Pro-Life" equally disingenuous, as people seem to forget about the needs of the human person after birth (health care? education? housing?). 

This four-fold approach can be sketched as follows in regard to any social issue:

  1. Name the Positions taken in regard to the issue (typically, a label)
  2. Examine the Values present and assumed under each Position
  3. Offer a Critique of each set of Position/Values from the standpoint of other Position/Values
  4. Attempt an Imaginative Resolution by considering what the real points of conflict are and how they might be addressed. 

For the Control-F Generation, this approach is most helpful because it bypasses their normal manner of processing issues. Rather than allowing them recourse to sound-bites and easy answers, it gives them a framework to work through really complicated and tough issues as a group. I have done this with freshmen, sophomores, and seniors and have found each group to embrace this task enthusiastically. Indeed, some of my better teaching moments this year came through this type of processing.

My only advice to teachers is to remember to listen. It is our temptation to try to respond to the Values with which we disagree. Do not do this. Let the students work through this as you stand by. On occasion you may have to intervene but, in general, opening up the discussion to the fresh air of reason and exploration will produce amazing results.
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