Matt Bai writes an interesting piece in the Times today, noting both how far we’ve come in our various debates since the 1960s, while acknowledging that, in some ways, we have not come far at all.  Bai used the controversies surrounding Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal to make his case.

Why then, to quote the ubiquitous Bono, is our political debate so stuck in a moment it cannot get out of? In part, it is probably because so many of the Americans most engaged in politics — as well as those who run campaigns and comment endlessly on them — are old enough to remember Altamont. It is your classic self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the ’60s generation dominates the political discourse, the less that discourse engages younger voters, and the longer the boomers hold sway over our politics.

On a deeper level, though, this all probably has as much to do with our basic human tendency toward moral clarity. As much as conservatives may view the decade as the crucible of moral relativism and the beginning of a breakdown in established social order, there remains something powerfully attractive about the binary, simplistic nature of it all, the idea that one could easily distinguish whether he was for war or against, in favor of equality or opposed.

By contrast, war today seems more a question of degrees and limits, while equality seems less about the laws of the land than about disparities in economic and educational opportunities that are subtler and harder to address. The choices of our moment are not nearly so neat or so satisfying as they were a generation ago, which makes them less useful as a basis for one’s political identity, and harder to encapsulate in some 30-second spot or prime-time rant.

Emphasis is mine.  I find myself agreeing with Bai’s explanation, especially given my work with college students.  Our students today are getting their bachelor’s degree and I would wager that, the way we construct our educational system in this country, a significant number get out of it without having to think critically about issues.  If I’m a student and I have followed external formulas guiding my behavior, never having this behavior challenged, I am not even aware that there is anything other than my cozy dualistic system from which I can choose (Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan would say I am subject in my meaning-making capabilities).  Of course a simplistic, yet disingenuous politics is going to thrive.

In order for us to challenge this lack of preparation we are offering our students, we must challenge the hegemonic structure dictating that campaigns or discussions on public affairs must run this way.  Simultaneously, we must purge ourselves of the assumption that we must go to college to have a chance to learn this.  These are big tasks; these notions unobtrusively penetrate our lives everyday, seducing us to believe that, because its the way things work, we must follow it.  You go to college, get a four degree, and then work somewhere because you are deemed to be bright enough to do so and be a citizen.  There’s a code for it:  it’s “tradition.”  It’s romanticized.  The degree is money, we’re taught.  Yes, our realities are much more contextual than they used to be; our technology, while improving our lives and making them more efficient, gives us a tangential responsibility of learning supplemental skills to be able to cope with the effects of the improvements.

Yet, how many of these college degree-holding, former students come home from work and sit in front of their TVs, allowing the sonorous tones of Bill O’Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, and/(but most likely) or Keith Olbermann to fill their living rooms?  Many, I’d be willing to bet.  And it’s because “we’re tired.”  We’ve been thinking all day.  We need someone to explain things to us, not help us understand anything more.  And so when Blitzer’s voice gets pitchy with excitement, indelicately discussing stories as complex as the history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the opportunity to parse what he is saying, to explore it, to uncover it, comes and goes.  “Why is this garbage on TV?,” someone might ask.  But given the way we tackle education in this country, we are all too often incapable of answering our own questions.

So when I read Matt Bai’s piece this morning, I couldn’t help but get excited.  A writer for one of the main cogs in this hegemonic structure takes notice of the primary problem — it’s a welcome event.  Yet, until we have younger people willing to challenge the status quo of journalism and education in this country (and older ones courageous enough to assist), our external formulas will rue the day.  Anyone up for the task?

UPDATE: Changed the title to better reflect the post.

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