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Monday, December 13, 2010

Civility and Discourse

Sadly, not true for everyone. 

It’s Thursday and I’m back in a Special Ed self-contained Language Arts classroom starting my day off with three adorable ten-year-old children who struggle in varying degrees with reading.  It is fascinating to see words being read accurately but not being retained or processed, as though each had wings, which lift them off of the page once uttered. 

Recall always needs to be prompted, even when it is factual information on three or four pages with pictures and no more than four or five sentences on each page. What is it about these young minds that have inhibited their abilities to use their short-term memory skills effectively? 

There are many theories as to why particular children may suffer with this processing deficiency and there are no quick fixes. To work as a teacher with these children requires great patience, compassion and understanding.  It requires most of all, a great ability to listen.   There is little nuance, little passion in their renderings, no matter how remarkable the content.  I am saddened for their loss, for what they may never understand about words. 

Later today we will be playing a board game called FACT OR OPINION.  We have played it before.  I made a chart distinguishing the characteristics of facts from opinions to scaffold learning.  Sometimes they remember to refer to it, and sometimes not.  The children are eager to please and often call out an answer without reflecting. They are conditioned to treat learning as a competitive, as a race.  It’s hard not to fall into that trap but I try to encourage them by asking not only for their answers but their reasons as well.  This helps to slow them down to deliberate and consider. 

Is this necessary? 

I share this because I often wish our public discourse provided leaders who act as I must, who in the course of law making and breaking to consider, reflex and measure their words before they spoke instead of racing to the media microphone to be the first one to respond.  I would also like to know more about their processes of comprehension. Are they good, thorough readers?  How about their staff that must wade through the morass of legislation and paperwork and then advise their bosses?  Have they examined the facts vs. the opinions, which surround the legislation they create and uphold?  

Reading is the most difficult task we master.  It is not hard wired into our brain for our survival. There is no single part of the brain that helps us read.  We must go from learning to speak to learning to apply our language skills to a somewhat arbitrary collection of symbols for which there are more exceptions than rules.  Daunting when you think about it. 

In our home on Sundays we always try to watch The McLaughlin Group.  We used to call it The Yelling Show because this public affairs program, which has been on the air since 1982, features speakers from the left and the right with Dr. John McLaughlin in the middle.  He has a Ph.D. from Columbia, the School of Journalism, not the correspondence school of broadcasting.  He asks questions for which he has an opinion, frequently right of center and allows his panel to go at it.  It is unrehearsed and taped live and that makes for both lively conversation and frequent interruptions.   

If John feels the panelist has not adequately answered the question, he probes further acting as a kind of Socrates to his panelists, in pursuit of what he deems as truth, not necessarily reflecting his opinion per se.  His pronouncements and gravely voice and stentorian tone make for entertaining television.

His most recent participants include on the right, Pat Buchanan and Monica Crowley.  Both are also Ph.D.’s from Columbia.  Pat from the school of Journalism and Monica in International Relations.  Pat was also a presidential candidate in 1992, 1996 and 2000 in case you forgot.  He was also the Director of White House Communication for two years under Reagan and acted as an advisor to Nixon and Ford.  Monica, a Fox News Contributor and Radio Host, began her career as a young advisor to Nixon to whom she sent fan mail as a grad student.  Monica usually wears 6-inch heels and a short skirt. She is a blond and smirks.

On the left is Eleanor Clift, a contributing editor to Newsweek Magazine who covered the White House beat under Clinton as well as Hillary's run for the New York Senate.  Her first husband ( who died ) was the brother of actor Montgomery Clift -- in case any of you like your news delivered with a People Magazine Pop Culture sensibility as I frequently do. 
She worked her way up from the Secretarial pool at Newsweek, the first woman to do so and she is a good sport about the ribbing she frequently receives.  She’s the one in the sensible shoes.  

Most recently Mort Zuckerman is by her side.  Owner of the New York Daily News, Editor in Chief of US News and World Report and known for his philanthropic ways (He recently recommitted to make good the $30 million lost by investment with Mr. Madoff made by his local synagogue --  a mench one might say. ) Though sometimes The engaging Chicago columnist Clarence Page fills in on the left. 

Here’s the thing, first I’ve noticed a change in the timbre of the conversation.  It’s more civilized these days.  The panelists are more polite to one another and there’s more agreement about how to move forward.  I like it.  I need to listen to real conversations and not sound bites.  Now, I’m not suggesting that this single show is the end all.  Frequently the conversations barely scrape the surface but the platitudes and careless words seem to appear less than on other shows --even when I don’t agree and want to smack the smirk off of Monica’s face.  

Second, their two or three end of the year shows are the best conversations on Television.  John will ask for their candidates for the smartest politician or the one who went down in flames or the most original thinker of the year and always concludes with asking for predictions.  Even if you watch for the next two weekends, you’ll get the best without the mud slinging and designed for sound bite responses.  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques Louis-David 
I hope our county’s leaders take some heed from this little weekly show.  We are in dire need of real conversation, of discussing the facts and moving away from opinion and partisan politics.  We must be able to count on our politicians to be good readers to be able to move forward into our new century with a clear vision for what might be.  

As Socrates said, 
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” 

In other words, read.  

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