Reflections on the Upcoming Election
Video and Text of a talk by Dr. Bennett that was shared with students in Morning Meetings during the week of September 21-25 in the Middle and Upper School
Good morning students. I'm very pleased to be able to talk with you for a few minutes about the upcoming presidential election. To start, I'd like to just note what I won't be doing in this talk.
I won't be telling you whom to vote for. You might say, well I can't vote anyway, Dr. Bennett, so it doesn't matter. But in fact some of our class 12 students will be able to vote on November 3rd, others in class 10, 11, and 12 are old enough to pre-register to vote, and for everyone else voting is not as far off as you might think. I’d like to put in a plug here for our Students in Action Club, which is conducting a voter registration drive. Look for details in Morning Meetings.
Whenever the time comes for you to be able to vote, I hope you will vote, and I hope that you will take your vote seriously, and that you will think for yourself and not allow others to tell you how to vote.
When I was closer to your age, and facing my first presidential election, I remember asking my father whom I should vote for. The year was 1980, and the candidates from the two major parties where Ronald Reagan for the Republicans and Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, for the Democrats. I was a sophomore in college, but not very well informed about the world. I knew who the candidates were, but I don't think I knew a whole lot more than their names. So, I thought, why not ask my dad?
To this day I remember what he said. It wasn't perhaps his best moment as a parent, but now that I have been a parent myself for over 22 years, I am very forgiving of parental lapses. He might have engaged me in a conversation about the candidates, or about the different political philosophies at the heart of the two major parties. But instead he said simply, well you might as well vote for Reagan; he’s going to win in Utah anyway.
My dad wasn't wrong, of course, about the ultimate outcome of the vote in Utah. As you may know the last time Utah voted for the Democrat in a presidential election was in 1964. But my father was clearly wrong in sidestepping the opportunity for a political conversation with me.
As I said, I don't blame him harshly. There are lots of compelling reasons for sidestepping political conversations, then as now. All of you, even at your relatively young ages, have probably experienced the discomfort that comes when we're participating in, or observing, a conversation that gets ugly, with people lashing out and taking offense. We want no part of such conversations. We might even consider that avoiding them is a form of caring and kindness. But in this year in which we are thinking deeply about the value of caring and kindness, I would encourage us to take another look.
Back to my father's less than inspired advice. The response I wish he had offered me is something like what I would like to offer you today. I wish he would have said:
I'm glad you're asking that question. There's nothing more important than the question of who should be the leader of our nation. You asked me whom you should vote for, but I can't answer that question for you. That's something you need to look into. You should take the time to get to know the candidates by listening to them speak, by reading what they publish, and by observing how they have acted in the past and seem likely to act in the future. You should think about what you value most, so that you can then use those clarified personal values, to weigh the candidates and the likely impact of their ascending to the presidency before making your best decision. If it seems easy and obvious whom you would pick, I urge you to resist a hasty choice. Take the time to think it through and to look beyond first assumptions. As a thought experiment, try making the case for voting to support the other candidate. See if you can see clearly the reasons why someone might value this person, or what this person represents. In the end, you may stick with your original choice, but you will then be doing it with more confidence, and your choice will be more worthy of respect. At the same time, having gone through that exercise, you will be more ready to respect the choices of others, and to accept whatever outcome to the election in fact unfolds. Above all, you should believe that your vote matters. Even if you vote in a state like Utah, where it seems the outcome is foreordained, the vote always matters. In the act of deliberating and then choosing, we are fulfilling our obligation as citizens, and thereby we are inching toward that better union our constitution envisions.
My father didn’t say any of that to me in 1980 — but it's what I'm saying to all of you here in 2020. Even though most of you are not yet able to cast a vote that will be counted in this upcoming election, you are all very much able to benefit from the process of deliberation and choice that is such a large part of the value of voting.
As you well know, our school—The Waterford School—aspires to world-class excellence in the liberal arts tradition of education. At its core, liberal arts education is a conversation. You experience it every day in your classrooms -- teachers inviting you into dialogue about mathematics, about history, about literature and science and world languages and art and music and dance and theater and athletics, and more. About life. About meaning. About purpose. And, yes, about politics.
A moment's reflection should remind all of us that the upcoming election is deeply intertwined with the subject matter of our daily curriculum. I recently asked your teachers to list some of the connection points they see between their subject matter and the upcoming election, and within minutes they generated a long list that is far from being exhaustive:
- Language and rhetoric
- Logical reasoning
- Scientific literacy
- Historical comparisons with elections past
- Photography, imagery, and image manipulation
- The cultural landscape in America
- The history of race relations in America
- Parallels between contemporary America and ancient Rome
- Insider versus outsider perspectives
- Bias and data analysis
- Personal essay writing and questions of one’s identity and place in the world
- Explorations of order and disorder in literature
- Mathematics of voting systems and the electoral college
- History of violence in America, especially during the lead up to the Civil War
- History of voting rights, comparisons across nations and cultures
The list could go on and on.
Over the next seven weeks or so, we should expect to talk about the election in direct and indirect ways at Waterford -- in our classes, in our Morning Meetings, at lunch and in the quads, in our cars while driving, and around the dinner table at home.
The first step toward making political conversation a constructive instead of destructive experience, is to not treat it as something dangerous, but rather to make it part of our school day, and to practice at it. Anything we practice regularly we will become better at over time.
A second step, related to the first, is to approach political conversations with genuine curiosity. We should all assume that we don't know the answers to the questions in front of us, but are entering into conversation in the hope that we might together discover those answers. Let's not treat political conversations as debates. Instead of arguing in the hopes of winning the day, let's explore the issues that matter to us and to our society. Let's have the wisdom to recognize that every political question of substance defies easy answers. Let's allow each other -- every voice within the conversation -- to explore the complicated questions, and to try out possibilities, possibly stumbling to find the right words, always supported by faith that our goodwill will be recognized. At least at Waterford, we won't be attacked, and in turn we won't attack.
Political conversations, like all conversations, should be about understanding, not winning. There will come a time, of course, when real votes will be cast and someone will win, and someone else will lose. But here at Waterford over the next several weeks, no one needs to win or lose; everyone can simply strive to understand.
This doesn't mean that the conversation should never be challenging. True understanding rarely comes without some form of challenge or struggle or disagreement or tension. Again, if it all comes too easily and seems just obvious, then we probably aren't thinking as deeply as we need to be. We should be grateful to the individuals who are willing to challenge our ideas in the midst of a conversation. As we welcome the note of challenge into our conversations, however, it's important that each of us strives to practice the skill of challenging ideas instead of people. This can sometimes feel like a fine line, but with practice we can walk that line. We must learn to distinguish between forms of discomfort that are actually preliminary stages toward deeper insight and better understanding, and forms of discomfort that are caused by the ill will and unkindness of others. Especially in our community of learning here at Waterford, we need to trust in the process of dialogue and assume the best intentions from everyone in the room.
All of what I am talking about here will be shared with you in Morning Meetings in the form of some simple norms of conversation that we all need to practice. As students, you are not expected to be expert at any of these skills at this stage in your life. As your teachers, we know you will make mistakes. We also know that we as teachers will make mistakes. We as teachers pledge to you that when mistakes happen, we will not freak out. We will not shut you down, just because you have used words that might inadvertently give offense, and certainly we won't shut you down because you offer views that may not align with our own.
We do have views, you know. We are not passionless, neutral creatures. In fact, we may have very strong feelings about this upcoming election, and about the question of who should lead this country for the next four years. But however strong our feelings may be, we are committed to not imposing those feelings on you, or expecting you to think and feel as we do. And of course we do not all think and feel alike. We have different views, and we are a better faculty because of our different views.
Politics, Bismarck said, is the art of the possible. We need the art of the possible now at this historical moment as much as ever. We need it here at Waterford. We need it in the teaching faculty and in the student body. We are all political animals, according to Aristotle. Perhaps we're all wired at some deep level of our genetic code to seek out possible solutions to the challenges that face us at every moment in history. That's how we will get through the challenges we are all living now — and the challenges that await us in the future. It is both daunting and hopeful to recognize that so much depends on politics.
As representatives of the next generation, you are necessarily the leaders of the future. You are here at this school, whether you fully recognize it yet or not, to develop the knowledge and skills that will allow you to take on that responsibility and to help all of us move forward into a brighter future.
There is no need to rush to take on that responsibility just yet. You are still in training. School is training, and the approach of a presidential election is a particularly ripe time for practice in conversation, in understanding, in imagination, so that you will be ready in the future to seek out the possible.
Back in 1980, my father’s advice to me about voting, regardless of what he intended, had the impact of limiting my sense of the possible, at least for a while. I don’t want that to happen to you in 2020.
As we embrace the opportunities for political conversation in front of us in this year of a presidential election, let’s strive to understand each other better. Let’s listen and speak with compassion and curiosity, and a sincere desire to understand. As we do that, we will no doubt find ourselves learning and growing in the ways our mission as a school envisions. May we all become artists of the possible.
Dr. Brandon Bennett, Waterford’s Associate Head of School, grew up in the Salt Lake area, before going to St. Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship. At St. Mary’s, Brandon first encountered the liberal arts philosophy of education, and was inspired to pursue the life of the mind through graduate school and a career in teaching and school administration. Brandon earned a BA in English at St. Mary’s, an MA in English from the University of Virginia, and finally a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Brandon started his career in independent schools in 1991 at the Meridian School, where he taught English and philosophy, coached basketball, and served as the Upper School Supervisor. He came to Waterford in 2002, where he has taught English and philosophy, coached Middle School basketball, served as a Class Dean, the Accreditation Self-Study Coordinator, Academic Dean, Assistant Head, Interim Head, and now Associate Head of School. Brandon continues to be a passionate advocate for the transformative power of liberal arts education, and is committed to teaching, administering, and continually improving the liberal arts approach to learning at the Waterford School. Brandon has two sons who have attended the Waterford School, the older graduating in 2016, and the younger in 2019. With his wife, a pediatrician in the area, Brandon lives in Salt Lake City, and enjoys the opportunities provided by the Wasatch mountains.