The Marco Rubio Disaster, rote learning and getting the answer right

The ‘Marco Rubio Disaster‘ is, in my mind, the most amazing 5 minutes of political debate in my lifetime. It exposes, on the surface, the degree of preparation (training/brainwashing) that goes into preparing a candidate for a debate. It also reminds me personally of that feeling that happens to me occasionally in the middle of a talk where I can’t quite pull my thoughts together. I mean… Rubio just totally brain locked. A monumental momentary breakdown. Potentially, spun right, the end of his viability as a political candidate. But that’s all spin. We obviously shouldn’t judge a person on one flaw in one moment. The real interest for me is how it exposes a political teams desire to present us with certainty… and also where that can go wrong.

What happened
On February 6 2016, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie were debating Rubio’s lack of executive experience. In the middle of critiquing Christie’s record as Governor, Rubio entered into 30 second monologue about how Obama was trying to ‘change’ the country. Christie called Rubio on the prepared speech. And then rubio responded by repeating the speech, again. In almost the exact same words. Christie called him on it. Then Rubio did it AGAIN. His brain totally skipped on him. He tried to attack Christie to regain power in the discussion, but Christie had done too good a job of exposing the repetition. The crowd turned against Rubio.

talking point to truth
For years now, we’ve taken it for granted that our politicians, senior corporate executives and that guy in your home town who bosses people around are going to repeat things over and over again until we believe them. We have taken it for granted that they are in a position to ‘make truth’ by being louder, by being more persistent and being more authoritative than the next guy.

My father often talks about a guy in our home town who was the Oracle of the Possible (my expression, not dad’s). If he said you could fish a certain way, or build your house in a certain place, it was possible. If he disagreed, people figured it wasn’t possible. He was persistent. People laughed at people who disagreed with him.

In a corporation we call them brand statements. They are expressions and feelings that people want us to associate with a particular company. In many corporations employees are trained to mimic these behaviours and expressions in order to deliver on the ‘brand promise’. Some of these things are great… a brand that commits to ‘things not breaking’ and finds a way to deliver on this promise is probably contributing to a positive process. Sadly many of these promises are of the ‘we’re fun’ or ‘we’re edgy’ variety that try to get people to attach their personal aspirations to the clothes they wear. I signal I’m edgy by wearing X brand. I’ll grant you that it is a form of communication… and we certainly need ways to communicate with new people, but it’d be nice if we didn’t have the baggage that goes with it.

I remember about 10 years ago a politician in British Columbia was talking about a law that held political candidates accountable for the promises they made. The discussion was mostly met with confusion. On the one hand there are obvious problems with locking people down to one perspective on an issue when we could learn something and realize we have to change our minds. On the other hand, it would further contribute to people talking and not actually saying anything. We live in a political climate where politicians are criticized for being ‘too intellectual’. Too smart to be president… i mean… what does that even mean?

Rubio’s brain fart is a fascinating combination of the hometown despot, the brand manager and the politician. His message in that little 30 second snapshot (which we heard 3 times…) is that these other guys, they want to change things, and that’s bad by definition. The things I want to change are not ‘change’ they are things that need to be fixed. He needs to manage his brand in this way, because his perceived weakness (as pundit-ed) is a lack of executive experience. The brand response is to control truth making, as it always is. As a political brand statement, he is looking to return to the greatness of the past, the classic simulacra of American the beautiful, of the perfectland before the evil Obama.

In each of the three cases, it was a correct brand response. The problem, of course, is that they were in the same conversation 2 minutes apart. What Rubio did happens all the time – it happens with the guy down the street, it happens with corporate brands and it happens with politicians. The big question is –

Why do we care that a politician is repeating his talking points as non-sequitur when s/he does it in a row and not when s/he does it 100 times over an election period.

The art of repetition and rote
The first answer, I think, is that we’re trained to it. We actively train our society to respond to ‘the truth’ being made as an authoritative claim by people in positions of authority. Our entire school system is a training ground for this. The teacher is correct. They have prepared what you ‘need to know’. You are going to be tested on whether you have ‘remembered’ what you ‘need to know’. The question of whether you need to know it (How am I ever going to use this in real life?) and whether it’s actually true are not part of the system – though certainly there are some teachers that include it on their own.

Politicians have always recognized that they can do this. Look no further than the record of speeches from the Roman Republic to recognize that we didn’t make this up as an extension of corporate branding. The problem, i think, is that our corporations recognized this about a 100 years ago, and the training that was put into our education system to encourage people to listen to politicians and listen to their bosses in the factories are now also part of the consumerism of our culture. We are told, enough times, that a given thing reflects our personal aspirations and so we decide we need it. Repetition for truth.

Stop getting the answer right
I believe that our education system is a society building machine. I believe that the way we build it, the practices we foster, the underlying concepts in it make citizens a certain way. I totally understand that people want our schools to be accountable, but the choices we have made for accountability have created a society where people believe that repetition is true. We believe that there are correct answers to all questions. That’s how tests work isn’t it? Don’t we represent power in our classrooms through teachers who present and test for correct answers?

It is MUCH easier to check and see if a teacher is doing their work if ‘doing their work’ is the same as getting students to deliver the right answer. We’ve always recognized this. We turn to ‘project based learning’ to give people a chance to do explore, to deal with uncertainty, to make their own answers. Super inconvenient though, PBL. I mean, the students have 6 hours to get something done so… it’s much easier to provide some structure so that they can get there in that time. Teachers change, people start to realize that that structure is way easier to measure than the random things that students think… and then we start to measure the structure.

I’ve come to realize that rhizomatic learning (and many other, similar projects – see connectivism, heutagogy etc…) is about creating a different kind of citizen in our little society building machine. I’m hoping to encourage citizens who can, among other things, see what Rubio is doing not just when he so majestically did it in a five minute span, but when he repeats for truth over the course of a campaign. I would love to be part of encouraging citizens who get MORE suspicious as things are repeated rather than less. To destabilize the brand message so that it was less effective. To make it so that we did not look for TRUTH but rather negotiated truths that included more people.

I think certainty in schools is a key battleground. We need to stop getting the answer right.

Author: dave

I run this site… among other things.

5 thoughts on “The Marco Rubio Disaster, rote learning and getting the answer right”

  1. Of course it works. Anyone pragmatic knows people become afraid when there is no certainty. Promote fear; promise certainty. Surefire win. Success formula for politicians, publishers, and, sadly, many preachers. They don’t even have to believe it to make it work for them. Unfortunately their disciples do pressure each other to believe it. When the comfort of certainty is so precarious already, how indeed can one become strong enough to surrender it? Once repetition makes it ludicrous, we hold on more tightly.
    Any of us who dare to challenge the dogma of “right” answers are “destroying the foundations of civilization.” and need to be silenced. Harshly. Like Socrates.
    You’re a brave voice crying in the wilderness, Dave. Standing for truth – “negotiated truths that include more people.” (gotta tweet that) I wonder if Jesus might have said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a rhizome” if he contextualized his message for our day.

  2. Great analysis on repetition, branding, politics, and education here. The fetish of the “correct answer” certainly lies at the core of current educational tradition though I think a lot of folks are questioning this now. The problem may be that most educational theory does not easily accommodate alternatives. Without this accommodating theory, Rhizomatic learning may be seen as largely peripheral – relevant to informal learning but disconnected from formal education. I think you’ve been asking this question for a long time: What does education look like without a curriculum, without (imposed) objectives and benchmarks? In order to move toward and understanding of this, do you think that we will need a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense? How far can we go with theory misaligned to practice before the theory breaks?

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