F. Scott Fitzgerald, Voltaire, and Public Discourse

Hey kids.  It was me.  I was that student.  I was the one who raised my hand and said, “Why do we have to learn this?”  And, “When will I ever use that?”  I think I asked that question in almost every class I have ever taken.  And that includes college.  I still ask it today.   Relevance is an important part of learning.  Students want to know how they will apply what they are learning to their daily lives.   I’m guessing that my high school English teachers would tell you that I was particularly curious (and equally annoying) when it came to finding the relevance in a great American novel or classic literature.  F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Voltaire?  BOOORRING, right!  That stuff’s over a hundred years old. It can’t matter any more…can it?

Actually it can.  From my perspective, the relevance of these authors and others are more timely than ever.   Pick up a newspaper.  Read the news online.  Watch the news on TV.  Just take a moment and look around.   A fantastic learning opportunity is staring you right in the face.  Anywhere and everywhere you look, you can find public discourse; or what now passes for discourse.  Nationally, there’s no shortage of topics.  And locally, we continue to have issues that need input from our constituencies.   All of these issues will affect you as an adult, and you’ll want to effectively voice your opinion on topics that are important to you, both now and in the future.

Schools used to have debate teams to teach students these types of skills, but they have gone by the wayside long ago in most places; mostly due to a lack of student interest and accountability models that reduce the flexibility of scheduling course electives.  My high school didn’t have one and that was nearly (cough) 30 years ago.  That’s too bad.   Students who were on the debate team were prepared to contribute to the public discourse in a positive way.   If you watch the news or our federal government at work, you can see what happens when you let a skill like that wither on the vine (for the record I mean both sides folks, so you can skip trolling me on social media).

So while sophistry may be the current tool of choice for many pundits and politicians, it does little to forward us towards solutions to the critical issues we now face.  So what’s a bright young mind to do without a living, breathing debate coach?   Read of course.  And the classics are a great place to learn a few skills that you can use to constructively contribute to the public discourse.

First, don’t shout or get personal.  Michel de Montaigne, a renowned writer during the French Renaissance said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.”  You don’t need to shout over one another.  Besides, there’s plenty of research to show that people listen a whole lot less when you’re rude or shout.  Just for the record, I’m not sure my high school basketball coach was privy to that ground breaking research.

Greek philosopher Cicero said, “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.”  Kids, that’s 2,100 year-old Greek sarcasm.  It’s also seems to be standard practice for politicians these days.  Don’t be that guy.  Learn how to practice the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.   Don’t resort to half-truths and misleading statements.  Focus on the facts, not the person with the opposite opinion.

Secondly, have an open mind.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, said that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”   Take the time to understand the other guy’s position.  Nobody says you have to agree with him or her, but a little empathy goes a long way.  So far, in fact, that the most innovative and the fastest-growing global companies count empathy as one of the top six skills they look for in new hires.

Also, take turns and be polite.  You learned this in kindergarten.  Don’t forget it, even when you strongly disagree.  Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire summarized his views by stating, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”   No greater civility was ever embodied in a statement of disagreement.  And much more than simple disagreement, Hall expresses disapproval.  I more than disagree with you; I don’t like what you’re saying and don’t want you to say it, yet I would die before I would deprive of the opportunity to do so.

And lastly, be self-reflective.  Most of the adults reading this will assume I’m talking about “the other guy”.   Before you enter any sort of public debate, consider your motives.  Baltasar Gracián, a 17th century Jesuit priest and writer, said “Don’t take the wrong side of an argument just because your opponent has taken the right side.”  Whether it’s an election or a fight with your buddy, make sure you are arguing in the right way and for the right reasons.  And when it’s all said and done, if you happen to come out on the losing end, do so with dignity.  And here’s a hint, if you’ve followed the wise words of  Montaigne, Cicero, Hall, Voltaire, Fitzgerald, and Gracián, you’re already there.  And here you thought there wasn’t anything worth reading in those dusty old books.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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2 Responses to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Voltaire, and Public Discourse

  1. Dari Quirk says:

    Enjoyed reading this post.
    Dari Quirk

  2. MJ Kleven says:

    There is much wisdom in these words (and of the words of the thinkers and philosophers of whom you quote) Congratulations on your new school board, and I believe you have a great board that will heed these words!

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