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Politics as a 'lifelong learning project:' How do we dissolve the apprehension of discourse?

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Weekender Staff Writer

NOVEMBER 16, 2018

On Election Day, my political economy class did not hold a regular, mandatory lecture. Instead, our professor opened up the class to a discussion. We spoke of potential factors that could contribute to low voter turnout.

What keeps our generation from showing up at the polls?

Several students brought up reasons such as busy schedules, the voting process being complicated, etc. A thought on my mind, however, was that perhaps people didn’t understand a logistical aspect of casting a vote and would be too embarrassed to ask for clarification. No one else had brought up this point, but for some reason, I found myself hesitant to raise my hand. Admittedly, it was because I was concerned others would misunderstand and think this was the case for me. It made me nervous to potentially be associated with a level of uninformedness.

It dawned on me that this was pretty ironic.

Walking out of class, my mind turned to other thoughts we keep to ourselves amid the red, white and blue flurry of elections. Despite Berkeley being such a purportedly open place for conversation and exchange of ideas, the floor didn’t feel like a completely free place for discussion.Not that all speech is productive speech and that being informed isn’t important, but I was more curious about how comfortable we really are with knowledge gaps — the notion of exposing that we don’t, and can’t, know absolutely everything. I set out to conduct interviews, with students and faculty alike, to further explore this observation, or more specifically this hesitation, in political discourse.

A realization had already struck me within several minutes of reaching out to potential interviewees. Several students prefaced their agreement to interview with a disclaimer that they didn’t know much about politics, or that they’d understand if I wanted to speak to someone else more informed.

Similarly, professor Darren Zook, who teaches in the political science and international and area studies departments, has noticed a degree of uneasiness in his classes. I asked how he’d describe the political culture here. He replied, “divided,” “disillusioned,” “determined,” and then paused momentarily, in search of a word.

“There’s an apprehensiveness,” Zook said. “People become more quiet because there’s a fear of misspeaking, so you don’t speak.”

It seemed to me that there was a level of informedness we feel expected to be at, especially when it comes to our democratic obligations, and if we don’t feel we’re there, we withdraw from the discourse entirely. Our insecurity is especially harmful when we compare ourselves to others, possibly glorifying how much some of our peers know — which is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, it makes us perceive these individuals as “untouchable,” and we become too intimidated to converse with and learn from them. And second, it perpetuates this notion that there’s such thing as “knowing enough” on a topic.

“People become more quiet because there’s a fear of misspeaking, so you don’t speak.” — Darren Zook

Professor Scott Saul, who teaches in the English department, expressed an interesting observation on how, in the classroom, we might “fetishize the idea of the right answer.”

“(Students) act like they’re experts on the reading,” Saul said. “But they’re doing it for the first time.”

It’s no secret that here in Berkeley there’s an underlying stress beneath us. We want to be the best, know the most, impress others. Being competitive was how we got here. But maybe, at times, this could be doing more harm than good — as people may shy away, taking their ideas with them.

And Saul’s observation raises an interesting point. How much do we each really know? Yes, some peers are very well-versed on issues. But it’s possible for anyone to better understand something.

Patrick Boldea, a junior and a former news reporter at the Daily Cal, expressed an interesting observation beyond the classroom — and instead on social media.

“(Our generation) is much more involved online and expressive, but at the same time, we’re much less politically active, if that makes sense,” Boldea said.

Several students expressed that they feel more removed from the political scene and that it isn’t a particularly comfortable topic of discussion for them. On the other hand, several other students expressed that they were more outspoken, objectively knew a great deal about certain propositions, issues and candidates, or were a part of political groups on campus.

But they, too, admitted to having areas of confusion, and some to even perhaps coming off as more informed than they in fact are. I appreciated this honesty and found it quite valuable.

“I don’t want to say this in a way that’s arrogant, (but) I definitely have a tendency to speak as though I am informed and an expert on just about everything, even if I have no idea,” Boldea said, “There are plenty of things I don’t (understand).”

Boldea shared this particularly in reference to his experiences with Model UN, where this is the “whole game.”  

“People think I know more about specific issues and voting, but I know more about the abstract ideas that are at play,” said Basil Kyriacou, a junior.

I also found it valuable when the interviewees who felt less confident with their political knowledge opened up about uncomfortable experiences.

Christine Nguyen, a sophomore, recounted a recent experience from her political economy discussion section. She explained she had felt intimidated to participate throughout the semester, but eventually mustered up the courage to answer a question. It went well, and she explained how she’s begun to eradicate this idea of hers that some people have “magic knowledge” only they can bring to the table.

Like I said, several interviewees almost didn’t meet with me out of fear that they wouldn’t be a good source for my article. In reality, though, I learned so much from every student, each with their own forms of specialized knowledge — no magic necessary.

It’s OK to have to ask a question out of not knowing something. To engage in a conversation in order to learn about a topic we don’t understand. To maybe even voice a point of disagreement.

“You should always ask,” Boldea said. “Because if you have that feeling, it means something.”

I explained to Zook the insecurity my interviewees commented upon, that they felt they didn’t know enough on topics. And I asked him what advice he has for them, on how to get to a more “sufficient” point of understanding. I got a response I did not expect, but one I realized could be the solution.

“In some ways, you can’t fix that, and I’ll tell you why,” Zook said. “Politics is a lifelong learning project.”

Here at this school, we have an incredible number of resources at our disposal — by which I don’t just mean at libraries. Zook emphasized that our learning is not solely about “book learning,” but “peer-to-peer learning” as well. And this is something to take advantage of in the name of education.

… I learned so much from every student, each with their own forms of specialized knowledge — no magic necessary.

To drive progress further, conversation needs to be opened between more people. And not just between Democrats and Republicans, but rather across this spectrum of “informedness.” We are all at different levels of understanding, and any one person has the potential to help anyone else through the conversation and further our grasp on ideas.  Even if we don’t have all the facts, our experiential knowledge, humility and opinions are still important. Otherwise, a more stifled conversation circulates within the pool of political discourse.

The last comment of my last interview lingered in my mind for a good while. I didn’t understand why at first, but upon reflection, I think it was because it conveyed a certain air of political vulnerability that I think we can all learn from.

“I said a lot. I’m tired. I hope nothing came across as bad,” Kyraicou said. “These ideas are tricky and I try to say them right. And a lot of times I don’t. And that’s something I work on.”


A previous version of this article failed to disclose that Patrick Boldea formerly worked at The Daily Californian.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]

NOVEMBER 19, 2018