Teachable Moments:President Obama’s Farewell

In just a day, the world’s largest democracy will witness a peaceful, constitutional transfer of power. Even at a time when we complain that power-hungry governments and divisive politics threaten the practice and spirit of democracy, a peaceful signing out and swearing in of governments signals that all is not lost. The form is not everything but it matters. That’s Lesson #1 in this teachable moment. If you are going to watch the Inauguration with your students or your children or it shows up on the news, this is something to remember.

Between the election and America’s Inauguration Day, President Obama and his family have come in for a great deal of praise. There have, of course, been criticisms of many of his policies but on the whole, a sense of loss dominates. It is the character of the President and First Lady and the values they have consistently spoken for that people are speaking about. They are decent people—good people and great role models—and no matter where you stand politically, these qualities are visible. That could well be Lesson #2—that who you really are matters. Being a good person, being honest, standing up for your values and thinking about other people are all traits to copy, regardless of which party or country you come from.

I was struck by how globally relevant the remarks about democracy in President Obama’s farewell speech . Here are some extracts.

“The work of democracy has always been hard, it’s always been contentious and it’s sometimes been bloody.

…Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.  So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

…Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.  Sometimes you’ll win.  Sometimes you’ll lose.”

 Once won or when inherited, we take our citizenship and rights for granted. We have citizenship but do not vote, evade taxes and take no interest in civic affairs. We have rights, which we are happy to exercise, but we are shockingly unconcerned about encroachment on those rights until it touches us personally. We are certainly unconcerned about the rights of others. Democracy is about contest between different ideas and finding a way for them to work together in a peaceful way, but we forget that and let dominant ideas bull-doze the others into oblivion. Resistance and dissent are a part and parcel of democracy. And this—Lesson #3 in this blogpost—cannot be repeated enough.

…“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity.  Our founders argued, they quarrelled, eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.

…‘But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”’

 Lesson #4 is that diversity and disagreement are fine and it’s our willingness to live and work together that matters. Our willingness should not be an apathetic ‘whatever.’ A good democracy is built on the interest and concern that people show for each other. Being willing to listen and learn are really important—so much so, being will to really learn is Lesson #5. And as we learn, democracy depends on our willingness to modify or change our thinking, based on information from the real world.  As Obama put it:

“Look, politics is a battle of ideas; that’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”

How would one start these conversations? I suppose it would be easier if you were watching or intending to watch the Inauguration. If not, another opportunity might be provided by news reports of the very large Women’s March on Washington that is planned for the following day.

One might start by discussing why women are marching and why so many are joining them. That might lead either to a discussion on the transfer of power, the nature of democracy or most fruitfully, the nature of citizenship, depending on the age of those who were talking. And peace education is also peer education, so you could start these conversations anywhere.

Try it and let me know what worked!

PS: Here is President Barack Obama’s last letter to the American people.

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