October 10, 2013 — Dr. Dustin Swanger
We are a nation of headlines and sound bites. By that I mean that today, more than ever, Americans make decisions, form attitudes, and reach conclusions based on a newspaper headline, a TV sound bite, or a short statement rife with political spin.
To illustrate this point, Jimmy Kimmel recently conducted a “man on the street” interview with people outside of his New York City studio. His question, “Which program do you prefer: Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act?” People overwhelmingly stated that they hated Obamacare. It was bad for the country; it would destroy the economy; it brought government too much into our healthcare. However, they were very much in favor of the Affordable Care Act. After all, health insurance should be affordable; children should be able to stay on their parents health insurance until age 26; insurance companies should not be able to deny someone coverage because he/she has a pre-existing condition. They were stunned to find out that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are, in fact, the same law.
Whether you are supportive of, or opposed to, the Affordable Care Act is not the point of this essay. The point is that the spin that has been placed on the Affordable Care Act by nicknaming it Obamacare and creating short negative sound bites has led the public to conclusions that some political leaders planned. The discussion has been void of civil discourse about the components of the Act and what it attempts to accomplish. The public is uninformed.
While having a society that is happy to blindly draw conclusions based upon short sound bites is politically advantageous, it may not be the society we want. In the extreme, history has shown that such a society can be dangerous. Don’t we want a society that reads more of the details? One that can think critically about the data and can draw conclusions based on facts? For or against any issue, reaching a conclusion through thoughtful reading and discourse is the society for which we should strive.
Early in our history information was hard to get. Generally, only the wealthy read and information was slow to reach the masses. Distances between populated areas took days to traverse and many people didn’t care much about national politics. And in reality, at that time national policies had little effect on many in small towns and cities.
Today information is available in seconds. That “information” may be factual and it may not; but it’s there. The question is, of course, do we take the time to read and analyze it? The answer, for the most part, is sadly no.
If you accept the premise that one of the foundations of a college education is to prepare people to be productive citizens, then colleges, like FM, must wrestle every day with preparing students to get past the headlines, past the sound bites, and into the details of various issues. We must teach students to think critically about what they are reading, hearing, and witnessing in order to make thoughtful decisions. We must encourage them to question sweeping statements that jump to conclusions. Only then can our society advance and hold those in power accountable.
Dr. Dustin Swanger is President of FM.