I try hard to avoid annoying my students by starting sentences with anything that more or less translates as "When I was your age..."
Now and then something will slip out. I'll toss off a remark, tell a joke, make a pronouncement, or deliver a mini-lecture that has me wandering off topic to take a stroll down memory lane, but I usually catch myself quick. Generally, there's nothing but nostalgia and narcissism in such self-indulgences and all I'm really telling students is that I'm old, a fact they can see for themselves.
Once in a while, though, there's a useful point to be made by highlighting a difference between my then and their now. Useful in that it might help them better understand what is going on in their now. If I put it right, I'm talking about their lives and not mine. It's better, though, to just do it without time travelling and museum visits and opening up the family album, so to speak, if it can be managed and I usually manage.
For instance, it’s useful for my students in my Wired Critics class to know that when I was their age, one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies was Kelly’s Heroes. (It still is.) What makes it useful is my adding that Eastwood intended Kelly’s Heroes to be an anti-Vietnam War movie and wished it was even more anti-war than it turned out and that’s because Eastwood is a rare and dying breed, an anti-war Republican. And if you know that, then you won’t make the mistake of seeing American Sniper as a pro-war movie.
Like I said, that kind of thing comes up now then. Still, I try not to let it happen too often. But there's something along those lines I'm thinking I need to tell my students in my Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons class in the fall. And that's this.
"Once upon a time, back when I was your age, there used to be conservatives who were actually conservative.
"I mean there were people who thought it was more important to take care of the present as opposed to making the future brighter, which is basically what they thought liberals were up to. They were wrong about that. That wasn't and isn't all liberals are up to. The idea is to make the future brighter by taking care---as in fixing and improving---things in them present. But the point is that conservatives believed things were just fine as they were or if they weren't, it was nothing a little tinkering couldn't fix. And the upshot was that conservatives were great on tinkering. They could admit there were problems and set out to fix them just not with the zeal and alacrity liberals would bring to the project or with the budgets liberals thought necessary. They were too cautious, too prudent, too skeptical, too cheap, often enough, but they were still realistic which didn't always mean seeing what couldn't be done. It sometimes meant seeing what could. That allowed them to be problem solvers.
"And being problem solvers allowed them to be something else. Unafraid of social change.
"They didn't always like it. They were usually doubtful of anything much good coming from it. And they often didn't see the need. But sometimes they did. And they understood that it might cost them something in money or privilege or or comfort or peace of mind.
"Because they were something else. Two something elses, I should say.
"Open-minded and open-hearted.
"So, back then, when I was your age, it was possible to be a conservative, to be a Republican, and still be for Civil Rights and women's freedom of choice. It was possible to be a conservative and a Republican without thinking all government spending was evil or even wasteful. It was possible to be a conservative and a Republican and still want to do things to make life better for the poor and unfortunate and that the government had at least some responsibility and the competence to do that. It was possible to be a conservative and a Republican without thinking the answer to every threat to national security was war and more war. It was possible to be a conservative and a Republican without having to be homophobic, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, paranoid, reactionary, and otherwise generally angry, hateful, and afraid.
"And finally, because they weren't always angry and afraid and weren't wedded to the idea that all social change was bad and that the government wasn't in one way or another using talk about fixing problems and making the future brighter to take things away from them to give to you know who and what color you know who are, it wasn't necessary for conservatives and Republicans to deny reality, reject facts, refuse to look at any evidence they were wrong or had made a mistake, hate and fear education, close their minds and shut down their imaginations.”
I plan to tell them this not as a political lesson but as a preface. I won't get into when and why all that began to change. I'm not even going to mention that now nearly extinct animal, the liberal Republican. What I'm going to be leading up to is this:
"When I was your age it wasn't necessary for conservatives and Republicans to be anti-science.
"Not only weren't Republicans and conservatives anti-science, they loved science. And scientists.
"So much so that it wasn't possible to guess a scientist's politics by the fact that he or (a lot more rarely then) she was a scientist."
"Not so much that way anymore."
I feel I need to tell them all this as a warning to the several scientists there's bound to be among them that they are going to run up against it---anti-science-ism and anti-intellectualism---in their visits to the Digital Commons and it will be part of their jobs to confront it and knock it down. They will be competing with religious nuts, corporate shills, and partisan propagandists in trying to reach other scientists and communicate with and help educate the general public and some of what the nuts, shills, and propagandists put out there is disguised in pseudo-scientific language, supported by distorted and often invented evidence, and argued fallaciously in clever ways that make it not immediately apparent to people who don't know better or who aren't paying close attention that the arguments are fallacious. Circular logic, confirmation bias, cherry picking evidence, treating anecdotes as data, arguing post hoc ergo propter hoc, and mixing up opinion with fact while bumping along on the Train of Thought, are all mental traps the brightest and best-intentioned thinkers can fall into, so they need to watch out for those mistakes in their own reasoning. But consider how much more insidious they are when they're deliberately employed.
Of course, it's not only my scientists who need to be on the watch.
The point of the class is to prepare them to leave the classroom and join and lead in the discussions in their fields of study and in their chosen professions taking place out in the ether. And there are people out there who are determined to shut those discussions down.
The women will likely be confronted by these people more directly and in an uglier and scarier way than the men. Those who are of color or LGBT more than those who are straight and white. But still all of them will have to deal with it, and it won't be fun.
"When I was your age," I will tell them, "We only needed to be smart enough to talk to smart people. You have to be a lot smarter than that.
"You have to be smart enough to talk around people who aren't just determined to be stupid and ignorant but who see it as their God-given and patriotic mission to spread stupidity and ignorance throughout the web.
"And you have to be smart enough not to let them shout you down and smart enough to know not to shout back but to somehow confront them and still keep talking rationally and reasonably to the smart people they're trying to prevent you from reaching.
"God knows, I've never managed to be that smart."
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