‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. Now suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ (Mark Twain).
Back in the 1980s I worked on maritime issues in the US House of Representatives. Twice a year this took me up to the pretty seaside village of Mystic, Connecticut to give a seminar in their marine programme. Subject – what Congress is up to on ocean policy.
The seminars made me very nervous. I had stage fright even before I got on stage. The first time, I prepared more than 30 pages of notes for a three-hour class, terrified that I would run out of things to say.
On one of the visits, a student asked a tough question (nothing made me more anxious than a tough question): ‘when you propose legislation in Congress, what’s the basis for it? Is it based on what your maritime constituents want, or is it based on left-of-centre views?’
Good one. Had me stumped. Back then I thought I had to know every answer or I would look like Mark Twain’s idiot from Congress.
Like many, I had arrived in Congress as an earnest and naïve staffer, instinctively sympathetic to leftist arguments. But such attitudes melt quickly in the cauldron of special interests. It wasn’t because of money (there was plenty of money, though none of it came my way). It was because we were bombarded by good arguments from interests with directly opposing views, and it was hard to parse out right from wrong – to say that one side had a superior claim to the truth, or to favourable policy.
When I got back to Washington I went to my immediate boss (a long-serving, hard-boiled lawyer). I asked him the same question the student had asked me. He looked at me like I had morphed into a kangaroo, muttered something unrepeatable, and told me to get back to work.
I realized later it was a question about interests versus ideology, and the answer was pretty obvious – both. But at the time my boss’s response made me think: we’re making it up on the fly! We actually have no idea what we’re doing!
I was already feeling frustrated by the gridlocracy of American politics, and Washington seemed more and more like a cesspit of hyper-ambitious lawyers. So the idea of stepping back and trying to understand – and even teach! – bigger contextual issues was growing in appeal. Much of the reason stemmed from the question in that Connecticut seminar. A good question from a clever student can make a difference.
Washington taught me a lot about politics, but in the seminars I also learned about teaching. Not knowing the answer can be a good thing, provided you keep an open mind. And it finally occurred to me that sometimes the best way to teach is simply by listening.