Elephants in the classroom

So today I got to wake up really early, to head into London to do a slot on the BBC, going through the newspapers.

Of course, as you might have noticed – even if you’re not in the UK – a couple of young people got engaged yesterday: she acts, and he’s unemployed.

As the photo suggests, there was a certain lack of diversity in newspaper coverage.

And being the contrarian that I am, I pointed refused to pick any story to do with this (although I did mention the advert for a commemorative plate, not least for the speed of turn-around).

All of which is a long way around to a question that we often face in our teaching: how much should we confront the big, obvious questions or issues in our field?

Much has been said in recent years about teaching contentious politics and many of us now face this issue. Some things beg to be discussed and debated, but with the risk that no one can get enough distance from it all to say anything of real value.

Put differently, precisely because we feel something is really important, we might struggle to disengage our passions from our reasoning. And even if we can, then others might not; and might not accept that we have.

As you might imagine, this happens quite a lot to me on the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: my personal preferences are mine, and I don’t inflict them on others, trying instead to be led by the evidence on the many and varied aspects of the subject.

Often that works, but not always. This past weekend saw a demonstration of when it doesn’t, when quite a few people took except to an article that I’d tweeted, assuming that I had either written it, or condoned it. Choice epithets ensued.

(For the record, I don’t write editorials for national newspapers. And if I did, I wouldn’t have written that).

Anyhow, the point is the same: if someone’s stuck at the ad hominem stage, then it’s very difficult to do the kind of stuff we want to do: reasoned and considered debate.

So what to do?

Basically, the trick I like to use is to tackle things from the side, obliquely casting light.

This relies on you thinking about what it is that you want to discuss about the big issue, and then finding another way to discuss that.

Thus for Brexit, I find it useful to talk about principles of British and of EU politics, to explore what they are in more abstract terms, before then inviting people to make their own application to the matter in hand.

In its strongest form, you might not even talk about the elephant at all: it’s why historians have it easy, because they can always find another example with which to paint a picture without enflaming the same passions.

It’s why I chose the commemorative plate: it’s not the couple themselves, but it does cast light on the nature of popular buy-in (literally as well as metaphorically) and myth-making, as well as the unreasonableness of our expectations (exhibit 2 was going to be a full-page photo in another paper entitled “happy ever after”, which is a hostage to fortune if ever there was one).

Sometimes, you don’t have to talk about the thing, to talk about the thing.

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