I originally posted this on Teacher’s Education, but I’m putting it here, too, because it echos a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing here, so if you read both places, don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of déjà vu.
Each of my classes is currently engaged in a unit about public speaking. My freshmen are giving purely informational presentations – I’ve tasked them with learning about something interesting and then teaching the rest of the class about it. Since I like to do my own homework every once in a while, I’m doing this presentation with them. Mine will be about the first round of the Nuremberg Trials.
My juniors are taking on an opinion presentation – they’ve been told to format their presentation around “here’s this thing that exists, here’s what I think about it, and here’s why I think the way I do,” and my seniors are attempting an argumentative/persuasive piece – they’re crafting an presentation that asks the audience to consider – or to reconsider – a particular topic.
Each of these presentations has three requirements – they need to have visuals, they need a written component, and the kids have to speak for 3-5 minutes or (5-8 for the bigger kids). Additionally, they need to have at least three reputable sources, and they need to be organized such that the audiences can follow along, even if they’ve never had any experience with the topic in question.
I ended up in a conversation with my seniors this afternoon that intrigued me. It was a bit of an offshoot of the conversation we started on Tuesday when I brought up the concepts of ethical speech and what our responsibilities are to the words that we send out into the world. While I had planned this part of the unit to fall on this week anyway, I’m often amazed by how timely the Universe is in dropping relevant, real-world stuff into my lap at the exact time I’m teaching them in a classroom. The Arizona shooting and the conversation about rhetoric that has inspired were just such a thing, and we had a long and interesting discussion about whether or not we can (or should) link the speech of one to the action of another.
Anyway, several of the kids came to me with topics that really weren’t appropriate for argument, and I spent a while trying to get the kids to understand that I’m looking for them to tackle the kinds of issues about which reasonable people can disagree. It’s highly unlikely, I explained to one kid, that reasonable people are going to agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church does, so arguing against their right to do those things is kind of a pointless exercise. So, too, is arguing against animal rights abuses; most reasonable people would agree that it’s wrong to be cruel and abusive to animals.
Just about when I thought I was getting through to them, one of my (favorite) kids piped up. “Mrs. Chili,” he asked, “what does it mean to be reasonable?”
Yeah! Wow! What DOES that mean?
We spent a good long time talking about the implications of making that kind of judgment about something. How DO we determine what reasonable means? What are the criteria by which we judge that kind of person?
The answers the kids came up with both surprised and delighted me. Reasonable people, they decided, are people who, by their nature, are open-minded. They’re willing to listen to others’ ideas, but aren’t necessarily swayed by them. Reasonable people are critical thinkers and don’t just jump on the latest and greatest ideas. They don’t give a whole lot of credence to the people who are making the most noise, but are more impressed by the people who make the clearest and most compelling argument. Reasonable people take the big picture into account; a reasonable person may be willing to concede to something not-so-good in the short term to ensure a positive outcome long-term. Reasonable people are compassionate and consider the needs of others when making decisions or taking actions. Reasonable people may well be considered unreasonable by outside observers, they decided, but it’s not one’s reputation that determines one’s reasonableness; one’s behaviors, thought processes, and actions determine this (some of my kids are very sensitive to the fact that our school doesn’t yet have a very good reputation, and they take that personally). Reasonable people do not generally abide extremes, they decided, nor do reasonable people generally rely upon “faith” to make their decisions; they are more influenced by their own experiences and observations and the facts that they encounter than they are by scripture or the words of their particular flavor of clergy. Reasonable people are willing to change their minds about something when they’re presented with compelling evidence to do so.
We ended the conversation by talking about the idea put forth on a church’s message board:
Learning to think for themselves, and learning to do that reasonably, is perhaps the most important thing I can encourage my students to do. To that end, I give them every opportunity I can find, and I ask them to think in whatever ways they can, whether those ways agree with my way of thinking or not (because learning to disagree with civility is absolutely vital, and learning to disagree with those in authority is a life skill).
So I ask you, Dear Readers, what would you add to my kids’ definition of what makes one reasonable? Do you think you embody those qualities? If not, where can you strive to bring more reasonableness into your life?