Learning the News: Take ‘vocation of citizenship’ seriously

Finding ‘safe havens’ for dialogue about politics is less important than preparing oneself for political exchanges, writes Roger Plothow.

The many fans of this weekly exercise who haven’t missed a single installment will recall a conversation I had with old friend Dwight Allman a couple of months back.

Dwight is toward the end of an assignment in Scotland teaching at St. Andrews University. When not overseas, Dwight is a professor of political science and philosophy at Baylor University. I asked him to comment on how citizens today can find what I called “high-minded political dialogue without getting lost in the online sewage.”

Here are some of his thoughts:

“The first thing I would say in response to this set of questions is very simple, but all-too-little appreciated: adult citizens of our democratic society must take what I call ‘the vocation of citizenship’ seriously. Animated by a genuine civic spiritedness—what we sometimes recognize as a proper love of country—one ought actively to cultivate oneself intellectually (as also in other ways) in order to participate meaningfully in the common project of self-government.”

He does have a way with words, doesn’t he? There’s more.

“To that end, one needs to make civic education, broadly conceived, a kind of priority in one’s life. A basic nuts-and-bolts knowledge of how our governing institutions function is of course vitally important for anyone who expects to participate properly in the collective decision of choosing representatives for the different offices of government.”

Being a professor, he argues passionately for the need for a “lifelong commitment to acquiring the requisite knowledge” to be participate in the “national conversation.”

So far, this is pretty much what you’d expect from someone who teaches this stuff for a living. But then he provides some more specific and, I think, pointedly helpful advice.

“The key, in other words, to finding ‘safe havens’ for substantive dialogue about our common political life is not as much a matter of locating just the right blog or website (though it likely involves some selective surfing and befriending), as it is preparing oneself for such exchanges. The quest to involve oneself in ‘high-minded political dialogue’ begins with a recognition that one needs to cultivate and equip oneself for that kind of engagement and entanglement with others.

“In short, one should seek to fashion oneself into the kind of interlocutor that one would hope to befriend, since, as Aristotle—the philosophical grandfather of our western tradition of self-government—long ago made plain, it is only on such terms that this kind of politically and intellectually serious friendship can be sustained.”

This may seem like asking a lot, and it is. It’s certainly a long way from relying on social media and cable TV for our information. But, really, is there any other course that can save us from the train wreck we appear headed for?

Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong series of weekly columns on media literacy.