I received a long, interesting email message from my older son, Patrick [the famous chess player and Hedge Fund manager] about my comment that Obama has lost control of the public discourse, and it started me thinking about why this is so. I have been so stressed out over the Massachusetts loss that I have been unable to watch the usual cable news commentators, or read the usual blogs -- it is just too painful. Think of this post, therefore, as a form of lay therapy. [I am also preparing to lecture today on Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -- hence the association to therapy].
The problem, if I can put it this way, is that Obama, despite his many gifts, is actually not a very good teacher. I have been teaching for fifty-five years, and as a Philosopher, I have spent most of that time explaining things. I have given a good deal of thought to what it takes to be a good teacher. It is quite possible to be very smart, to understand a subject really well, and yet to be very bad at teaching it or explaining it. I think that is Obama's central problem.
The first and most important prerequisite for good teaching is the ability to put oneself in the place of one's students and understand, from their point of view, what they know and do not know, what they understand and do not understand. [All of this applies equally to writing clearly and well, of course, with "reader" substituted for "student."] Bad teachers spend a great deal of time explaining things that their students already understand, while totally failing to explain what their students do not understand, and must understand in order to grasp what the teacher is saying.
One sees evidences of this all the time in the discourse of experts who are so completely interior to their subject that they forget even to explain the meaning of acronyms that they are accustomed to using when talking to other experts.
Let me give one trivial example from the class I taught last evening on the mathematical analysis of Marx's economic theories. I had written up and handed out some sheets with little systems of price and labor value equations on them, and was going through the algebraic process of calculating the labor values and prices, to see whether, as David Ricardo claimed, the prices were proportional to the labor values. I thought I was doing a splendid job of explaining this rather complex subject, when one of the students, who is manifestly quite bright, but with no experience of economics, asked, "Why does the equation have in it the term (1 + pi)?" [i.e., the Greek letter pi -- my blog program does not seem to allow me to switch to different alphabets.] I explained that the capitalist must get back from the sale of his product an amount equal to what he paid for his inputs, including labor -- hence the 1 -- and also an additional amount that constitutes a percentage profit on that investment -- hence the pi. Thus, the price of the output must equal 1 times the cost of the inputs plus pi times the cost of the inputs, or (1 + pi) times that cost. Hence the term (1 + pi). As soon as I said this, she nodded, and it was clear that she understood. The point is, I should have realized that she, and other students, might not understand this, and so I should have taken a moment to explain it. Without that explanation, the equations were simply a mystery to her.
When Obama talks to the nation about the bailout of the banks, for example, it is obvious both that he understands the subject and that he really has not a clue what his audience understands. Indeed, he manages to communicate his sense that they ought to understand these things, and that it is either their fault or the fault of unscrupulous right-wing ideologues if they do not. And that sense, not surprisingly, comes across as condescending and elitist.
But it really would not be hard to explain. He might not persuade everyone that what he is doing is wise, or the right choice, but they would understand it, and it would then be incumbent on his opponents to explain equally clearly why they oppose what he is doing.
I have listened to a great many speeches by Obama -- uplifting speeches, inspiring speeches, deeply felt and moving speeches -- but I do not think I have ever heard him give a speech in which he just explains some policy question clearly, and in a way designed genuinely to clarify the issue in the minds of his audience.
I could tell him how to do it. But I suspect his inner circle would look askance at the idea of bringing on an atheistical, anarchistic Marxist as a White House advisor.
Oh well, there is always blogging.