Wednesday, September 7, 2022

On teaching Social Justice

Over the past decade or so, independent private schools have increasingly adopted the teaching of social justice into their mission statements. One strives to “bring an anti-racist, intersectional social justice lens to every aspect of our school community.”  Another has established a social justice “Institute.”

Trustees at my school called for “a new cross-department faculty working group to focus on incorporating themes of race, equity and justice into the curriculum of each department.” 

An article on the NAIS website acknowledges that elite private schools are “primary sites for the production and perpetuation of unequal social relations,” but says they nonetheless “can and should play a key role in social justice education” and train their students to be “agents” of “systemic change.”

Often, social justice at these schools seems to mean little more than recruiting a more diverse group of students and faculty and treating them fairly. (See, for example the blurb under this “Social Justice” heading on the Independent Schools of St. Louis website.)

But if schools do want to train students to become agents of systemic social change, they face a big problem. 

We don’t all agree on what constitutes social justice or how to bring it about. “Conservatives Do Believe in Social Justice,” a Heritage fellow writes. It involves “fulfilling our duties” and “empower[ing] more people to engage themselves in the market and flourish.”

A conservative vision of social justice would not include things like redistribution of wealth, affirmative action, abortion rights, or other elements of the left version.

In fact, conservatives tend to avoid using the term because of its historic linkage to progressive causes going back to the early 1900s.

And when they hear it used to describe a curriculum, they assume it means the school intends to indoctrinate students into a liberal or even radical-left political program.  They are not wrong.  After all, 83 percent of campaign contributions from teachers go to Democrats.  And even a self-described “left-wing New York City Democrat” describes the social justice curriculum at her son’s private school as “Maoist social reeducation.” 

So, though everyone on some level might hope for more social justice, the term—especially when used by schools—has become a source of division, contributing to the polarization that makes it harder to achieve any kind of social reform at all.

I would like to suggest that schools can graduate students who will be agents of a more just society not by “teaching Social Justice,” but by cultivating an attitude toward fellow citizens that will facilitate democratic problem-solving.

More and more of us have come to see those who disagree with us as enemies, bent on destroying society and scheming to oppress political opponents. That attitude justifies preventing political rivals from voting, or cancelling and silencing them—and it erodes support for democracy itself. The number of voters who say it is essential to live in a democracy has declined significantly in recent years especially among younger people. Even before Donald Trump began running for president, an increasing share of Americans were saying that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing.

The loss of faith in democracy is understandable, given the inability of our governments to solve our most pressing problems. But to advance any version of social justice in a democracy (or republic, if that’s your preferred term), we need to be willing and able to deliberate, compromise and form coalitions with fellow citizens and that requires mutual respect even between rivals. The best contribution teachers can make to advancing social justice is to graduate citizens with that sort of democratic disposition.

These citizens must understand that everyone has a different idea about what “social justice” looks like but that we can still approach each other in the spirit of what Danielle Allen calls “political friendship,” a term she borrowed from Aristotle, and updated for our current predicament.

Allen holds that all citizens in a democratic polity have an overriding interest in resolving our differences peacefully. The alternative—unrestrained political rivalry—generates distrust, resentment, and enmity that is likely to result in breakdown of democracy and in extreme cases, civil war.

(Read an earlier post for a more complete explanation of “Political Friendship")  

“Political friendship” lacks the partisan connotations of “Social Justice” and is inherently unifying rather than polarizing.

Teaching it in schools would do more to advance a liberal policy agenda than explicitly promoting a particular version of social justice. Attempts at indoctrination tend to backfire. If you’ve ever tried to tell a teenager what they should think, you know what I mean.  

(Go to the notes, below, for some examples of liberal indoctrination backfiring)

And advancing the progressive vision of social justice, with its heavy emphasis on reforming social and economic systems, depends on positive legislation more than the conservative vision, which tends to favor the status quo.

(See my post on how capitalism leads to ever more inequality in the absence of countervailing legislation)

Polarization of the electorate feeds the gridlock that makes it so difficult to pass the legislation that might advance progressive causes.

Political friendship holds the promise of reducing polarization. It says that today’s rivals maybe tomorrow’s allies on a different issue, so it’s best to treat them like future allies rather than permanent, irredeemable enemies.

Allyship is a popular theme in the contemporary social justice movement. My school organizes “affinity groups”: one each for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians based on their race, and a fourth for “white allies,” based on support for an anti-racist, social justice agenda, in the apparent expectation that white people have no interests of their own and could be relied on to think only of the interests of people with different skin color.

In these sorts of programs, white allies are asked to “check their privilege” and commit themselves to fight racism, calling out or cancelling other white people who show signs of bigotry.

This strategy relies solely on the altruism of white descendants of Europeans, who are simultaneously condemned as the historical perpetrators of racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

It is a doomed strategy, because it misunderstands the basic nature of political alliances.

In a 1967 essay defining “Black power,” Martin Luther King explains, “Our victories in the past decade were won with a broad coalition of organizations representing a wide variety of interests,”

A true alliance is based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. For an alliance to have permanence and loyal commitment from its various elements, each of them must have a goal from which it benefits.
To wait passively for “allies” with nothing to gain for themselves to be “somehow infused” with the “blessings of good will,” would be the “height of naiveté,” he wrote. See below for more on King's essay.

Alliances get things done and they require bargaining and compromise, tolerance of differences, and some common interest.

The future electorate will be made up of our current students. Given the divided nature of US government, an electorate that is steeped in the concept of political friendship and a more realistic understanding of political alliances would seem better prepared to build the coalitions and work out the compromises necessary to get any legislation passed to engage in collective problem-solving and advance social justice.

Notes and further thoughts and readings on teaching social justice

The private school paradox.

According to the NEA website:
Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably. … Sadly, a look at schools across the nation makes it clear that fair distribution of resources and equitable treatment don’t always happen. Students in poorly-funded schools don’t have the technology, new books, or art and music programs that create a well-rounded education, while students in affluent areas have the latest academic resources, school counselors, librarians, and more to help them succeed. 
As this Times piece indicates, private schools have seemed more enthusiastic than public schools in promoting social justice. But it seems fairly obvious that in spite of their well-crafted statements on social justice and whatever social justice lessons they are teaching their highly privileged students, those schools, by their very existence, do much more to exacerbate the problem of educational inequality, which is one of the worst examples for liberals of social injustice.

As a student at one private school put it:
Students who choose to attend private schools deplete public funding for public schools, divert private funding and weaken public classroom environments. If these students are to serve as advocates for social justice, they must first condemn how their choice to attend private school contributed to socioeconomic inequality.

In an Atlantic piece, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right” (Nov. 18, 2021), David Brooks suggest that trying to teach social justice in schools may backfire. He points to younger conservatives he met at the National Conservatism Conference, held in Orlando in Nov. 2021, who are coming to dominate the movement. Speaking about liberals, one said: “What they want is to destroy us.” These conservatives, Brooks adds, “went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction.” Brooks thinks he would have done the same if he had attended college in that environment.

The LA Times tells the story of how this happened to Stephen Miller, who rebelled against what he saw as a “campus indoctrination machine” at Samohi High School in “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” It's where he mastered the tactics of lib-baiting that catapulted him to prominence as a Trump troll and White House aide.

And of course conservatives make up for their weak policy agenda by using indoctrination in schools to stoke the culture war. At times they seem obsessed with educational institutions, teachers,  professors, and administrators.  For example, this website tracks everything elite educational institutions (including Phillips Exeter) do under the banner of DEI, critical race theory and social justice education.

Even many liberals are opposed to what they see as political indoctrination in their children’s schools. “Most of the teachers and parents I talk with just want school to be school—not some kind of Maoist social reeducation,” writes the parent of a fifth grader at an independent private school, who describes herself as a left-wing New York City Democrat. Issues associated with social justice and characterized by the right as “wokeness” and cancel culture, tend to unite Republicans and divide Democrats, according to the data analysts at Five-Thirty-Eight.

Conservatives and Social justice

The Heritage fellow’s Conservative vision of social justice can be found here.

A conservative critique of teaching “social justice” in schools is J. Martin Rochester, "Social justice miseducation in our schools," Nov. 1, 2017, Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative education think tank).
First, schools should mainly stick to what they are uniquely entrusted to do—teaching math, physics, English, and other subject matter and, beyond that, a love of learning. Schools should not aspire to be churches or social work agencies. In an already overcrowded school day in which our schools struggle to find the time to get students to become proficient in “the three R’s,” social justice training can be a huge distraction.

Second, more importantly, it is sheer hubris for teachers to bring their own personal political agenda into the classroom. What happened to free inquiry? In my own teaching, I try to keep my ideological dispositions to myself rather than using my lectern as a bully pulpit, if only to promote critical thinking as opposed to indoctrination. I expose students to a wide range of views from left to right. For example, when I teach about multinational corporations and globalization, I have them read everything from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman.

Educators for Social Justice talk a lot about diversity, but do they promote the most important type of diversity—diversity of ideas? Contrary to their claim that they celebrate “disagreement,” they seem to promote only a politically correct, left-leaning perspective.

King on alliances

The quote above is from King, “Martin Luther King Defines Black Power,” New York Times, June 11, 1967. I first heard this quote in an interview with Jared Clemons on The Dig podcast, June 24, 2022. Clemons adds that for King, 

successfully combating race prejudice meant successfully changing the material circumstances in which individuals found themselves. This latter point is critical, for it implies that the only way to reduce race prejudice is to alter the conditions that exacerbate the perpetuation of race prejudice. In other words, the causal pathway is such that material conditions change human practices, which shapes attitudes, not the other way around.

See Clemons’ essay, “From ‘Freedom Now!’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’: Retrieving King and Randolph to Theorize Contemporary White Antiracism,” Perspectives on Politics, Cambridge University Press, June 8, 2022. Go back up to essay.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Teaching citizenship in a polarized society

And why treat dissenters properly? Why not just forget about them? Because the process of negotiating differences allows for social stability, and the alternative is civil war, whether in major or minor key (Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, 98).

In the past decade, the American electorate has become so polarized that scholars are beginning to wonder if democracy can survive here. We increasingly see politics as an ongoing battle between ideological opponents with no common interests. Political rivals are seen as illegitimate, opposed to the common good and threatening to our way of life. An election victory by the opposition is seen as endangering democracy or Western culture and that justifies norm-breaking responses. On the left, we might pack the Supreme Court; on the right, storm the Capitol.

At the root of this polarization is what Danielle Allen refers to in her primer on citizenship as “congealed distrust,” an insurmountable road block to solving “collective problems” because democratic problem-solving “depends on trustful talk among strangers.” (Monk; Allen, xiii; See also, Hess and McAvoy, xvi).

Schools, unfortunately, are contributing to the polarization of the American electorate. As Americans increasingly sort ourselves into ideologically homogenous communities, more and more schools fall into a category that two scholars of political education call “like-minded schools,” in which the vast majority of students hold similar political values. 

Studies show that "when we live and work among people who generally think as we do, our views tend to become more extreme and less tolerant," which "ferments extremism and causes demonization of legitimate political difference" (Hess and McAvoy, 26).

Parents (especially conservative ones) are increasingly worried about the politicization of schools. A 2011 survey found that half of Americans think social studies teachers use their classes as political platforms (Hess and McAvoy, 205). And that perception has surely deepened in recent years. Conservative fears of liberal indoctrination in schools are not altogether unfounded. FEC data show that 83 percent of political donations made by high school teachers went to the Democratic Party.

But teachers in like-minded schools can push against the intolerance that festers in ideologically homogeneous bubbles and do their part to depolarize our democracy.  I think it's their civic duty to at least try. 

Most teachers seem to agree. One survey found that 65 percent of teachers say they try to keep politics out of their classroom.

But that approach won’t solve the problem for teachers of politically charged subjects like history and civics. And politics is likely to sneak into the room no matter what subject you’re teaching.

Also, disengagement from politics is one of the negative consequences of polarization. According to a recent study by Reuters, 40 percent of Americans have stopped following the news, a higher rate of news-avoidance than almost every other democratic country. People, it seems, are tired of reading about problems that can’t be solved.  And the ones who disengage tend to be more moderate and less intolerant than the ones who don't.

All of America’s teachers should be asking whether there is a way to teach politics that diminishes rather than increases polarization. After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s voting citizens.

Conservatives might argue that a proper education for citizenship should focus on teaching students the nuts and bolts of America’s Democratic institutions and instilling patriotism and admiration for the handiwork of the founding fathers. Many liberals have concluded that a civics education should instill a passion for social justice and foster engagement in that system to improve it.

Danielle Allen’s work, elaborated on by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy in their study of political education at America’s high schools, points in a different direction. A citizen, they argue, needs to understand the inevitability of sacrifice and its role in democracy, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice, and to become capable of deliberating with fellow citizens who have opposing interests and different convictions about what constitutes “social justice” and the common good. This requires the skills of listening and understanding the views of people you disagree with, what civics advocate Moira Kelly referred to as “cognitive empathy” at a conference I attended.

They would likely agree with conservatives about the need for knowledge of the system, but perhaps not about instilling a particular notion of patriotism. They would agree with the liberals about engagement but would warn against imposing a particular vision of social justice.

This last point is essential. A proper education must be non-partisan. Teachers must refrain from imposing their own policy preferences on their students. This is the bedrock of teaching political subjects, according to Hess and McAvoy’s Political Classroom. This principle of neutrality applies, the authors argue, to any issue that is currently open—a matter of live controversy in our national politics. It does not apply to issues that are closed or settled, like slavery or women’s suffrage. (Hess and McAvoy address open and closed questions in Chapter 8).

Joel Kushner, a teacher profiled in the book, treats the issues of abortion and affirmative action as open questions, upon which he cannot impose his liberal preference, or even slant the readings in one direction. When, faced with a balanced selection of evidence, some of his liberal students end up agreeing with the conservative position in a court case on religion in the public sphere, Kushner, a liberal, is unfazed (114-115). Instead of persuading his students to adopt his own policy positions, Kushner wants to teach them about how democracy works and how to harmoniously and productively engage with fellow citizens and engage in collective decision-making.

Democracy and Sacrifice

One of the most important lessons students need to learn to become democratic citizens is that in spite of the individual freedom and sovereignty that democracies promise their citizens, we don’t always get our way even in a well-functioning democracy and are often asked to sacrifice our personal preferences and interests for the good of the whole, the survival of democracy, and the maintenance of peace. When our candidate loses the election, when we are drafted and sent into battle, and when policies favored by the majority disadvantage us or go against what we think is good, we are sacrificing something.

To illustrate the inevitability of sacrifice, Allen points to the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates in 2000 to tame inflation. That decision imposed a disproportionate sacrifice on some citizens when unemployment inevitably increased and wages flat-lined as a result. Others gained when investors reacted to the news of impending recession by bidding up the price of stocks.

Learning how to negotiate the losses one experiences at the hands of the public is fundamental to becoming a political actor, not only for minorities suffering political abuses, but for all citizens. (Allen, Talking to Strangers, 30)

Allen explores the difference between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice. She begins her book with a discussion of the central failure of American democracy—the disproportionate and illegitimate sacrifices that African Americans like her have been forced to bear. Not until the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, she argues, did America become a true democracy.

How, she asks, can democratic citizens avoid imposing illegitimate or disproportionate sacrifice on fellow citizens and “generate enough political friendship” to “convert the distrust arising from political disappointment [and sacrifice] into trust” (Allen, 30)?

The interest rate hike might be seen as a legitimate sacrifice if it saved the majority of citizens from ruinous inflation. On the other hand, when stock-holders repeatedly win and wage workers repeatedly lose, congealed distrust is a likely result.

Societies can maintain or restore trust by recognizing and honoring citizens' sacrifice, Allen argues. We recognize the sacrifices of soldiers—the VA, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Arlington National Cemetery, countless monuments all over the country, like the one in the photograph above. America has also begun to recognize the tremendous, usually illegitimate sacrifices made by African Americans throughout our history: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial on the National Mall, Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice—and the monument depicted above. Other sorts of sacrifice quietly endured may be less costly, but are also important for the preservation of peace in a democratic system.

Can they be recognized and honored too? As interest rates rise again, is anyone acknowledging how low-wage-earners and the unemployed are likely to be sacrificed to save the rest of us from inflation? How do we deal with sacrifice aside from building monuments?

Political Friendship

Allen has developed, a theory of “political friendship” as a way of strengthening democracy by better managing sacrifice and building trust among citizens. Hess, and McAvoy argue for making that theory the basis of political education in grade school.

In a democracy, our collective fate depends on the maintenance of good will among strangers. Citizens must recognize this mutual dependence and treat these strangers, in a sense, as friends.

Friends often willingly restrain their own individual interests for the sake of what they see as a greater good: maintaining the friendship. Sometimes friends will even compete to make a sacrifice, as when they fight over who will pay the lunch tab.

Political friends are likely to have even greater competing interests and more diverse values and beliefs than intimate friends, but like intimate friends, they have an overriding interest in peaceful coexistence. Good citizens know that to keep the peace and nurture democracy, they must embrace the value of fairness and consider who is being made to sacrifice when particular policies are enacted. Citizens need to balance their own self-interest with the rights and well-being and interests of fellow citizens and not ask others to make illegitimate sacrifices. 

Like real friends who keep track of who paid for lunch the last time, citizens should always be asking what costs they are passing on to others, and whether the policies they favor are advancing the general good, or just the interests of a more powerful class of people (Allen, 119).

Elections and policy decisions can't be winner-take-all. Citizens must reject an attitude of rivalrous self-interest in which people compete for benefits with no concern for the impact on others or the collective.

Allen's concept of friendship is preferable to the currently fashionable notion in progressive circles of allyship because it acknowledges the fact that all political actors are entitled to and will inevitably pursue their own self-interest in the political world. And they need to be able think and reason for themselves. But if citizens pursue their own interests without restraint—without considering the impact on other citizens—distrust increases and democracy weakens. Thus, citizens can and will act in their own interests, but they should consider the harmonious relationship with "political friends" and important interest and move from rivalrous self-interest to what Allen calls "equitable self-interest."

Friends know that if we always act according to our own interests in an unrestrained fashion, our friendships will not last very long. Friendship teaches us when and where to moderate our interests for our own sake. In short, friendship solves the problem of rivalrous self-interest by converting it into equitable self-interest, where each friend moderates her own interest for the sake of preserving the relationship (Allen, 120).

Friends don’t push their advantages to the limit because the friendship, it turns out, is worth more than the sacrificed advantages. Citizens too, gain more from the peace that comes with treating fellow citizens fairly and from exercising forbearance—self-restraint in the exercise of power.

Teach political friendship

Danielle Allen was a contributor to the December 2019 “How to Stop a Civil War” issue of The Atlantic magazine, which featured articles about polarization and what might be done about it. One of the articles in particular stood out because of its focus on an excruciatingly earnest effort to overcome polarization by getting people from opposing political sides talking and listening to each other, developing cognitive empathy and practicing epistemic humility. The group was calling itself “Better Angels,” a phrase taken from Lincoln’s first inaugural—an earlier earnest but failed effort to prevent a civil war. Though they don't use the term as far as I know, they seem to be fostering something like Allen's notion of political friendship.

Their group is small compared to the size of the problem, but the effort is commendable.

Teachers should follow the example of Better Angels—who later changed their name to Braver Angels to reflect the courage needed to engage in that work—and do whatever they can to depolarize the future electorate, which is now in their hands. 

If they use Allen and The Political Classroom as guides, that would mean getting students to think about who is sacrificing as a result of a given policy, to recognize the difference between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice and equitable and rivalrous self-interest, to see the connection between rivalrous self-interest and illegitimate sacrifice, and to appreciate the importance of trust among citizens in a healthy democracy. They might also examine how communities honor some sacrifices and ignore others. 

The task is particularly challenging for teachers like me who teach in like-minded schools, where students rarely encounter people with opposing viewpoints and are likely to think of them in abstract terms, as unreasonable, ignorant, or acting in bad faith.

A case study by Hess and McAvoy of Joel Kushner’s classes—at a school where 94 percent of students identify as Democrats—offers some suggestions for how to overcome those challenges. 

Kushner’s curriculum pushes against that attitude by assigning readings that make persuasive arguments on different sides of policy issues and encouraging students to listen and understand (cognitive empathy) before criticizing and rebutting. He plays devil's advocate when necessary, but  thinks its better for students to encounter actual people who disagree with them. To make that happen, he invites guest speakers who hold views uncommon in his school community. For example, he invited an anti-abortion activist to speak to his mostly pro-choice students.

And significant differences often arise even within a group of liberal students.  Kushner shapes "discussion questions so students will naturally disagree" (Hess and McAvoy, 117). When they do, he doesn’t stop emotional exchanges. In a discussion of Affirmative Action, a Black girl defended the policy by bringing in her personal experiences of racism, which in the context of a court case they had studied, seemed to be irrelevant to the question at hand. Rather than steering the conversation away from her emotionally charged comments toward more relevant information in the assigned readings, Kushner let the discussion unfold from there without intervention.

Kushner’s restraint in that case is supported by Allen’s comments on the role of emotion in politics:

It is just as impossible to exclude emotion from politics as to ban interest.... As soon as one begins to take trust and distrust seriously, and to ask how trust can be generated, one realizes that reason, interest, and emotion cannot be disentangled (Allen, 56).
Expression of emotion between citizens humanizes us and is an essential ingredient in the generation of trust. “Sociability, not rationality, produces agreement” Allen writes, and only in emotionally honest conversation do citizens find out “what their fellow citizens are worth to them” (Allen, 96).

Our political “disagreements have as much to do with reciprocity and issues of mutual esteem as with the substantive issue under discussion.” Trust among citizens is fragile and tenuous, given our geographic separation and conflicting interest and values, and so we “must be committed to [trust generation] in perpetuity” (Allen, 97).

The emotion that occurs naturally in political discussions is an aspect of the authenticity that Kushner values in the teaching of politics. It is preferable for students to encounter authentic political viewpoints expressed by those who hold them rather than listening to him play the devil's advocate. The devil's advocate removes the personal from the political. When students encounter real people holding real views, not just intellectual abstractions, it helps them see those people as having moral worth. To be good citizens they need to learn how to talk about differences in ways that preserve relationships and respect. They need practice responding to such others in a way that promotes goodwill, respect, and humility. (Hess and McAvoy, 117, 127).

Humanizing political rivals is important, but so is understanding them—developing "cognitive empathy," as Moira Kelly put it. It helps if you keep an open mind.  Hess and McAvoy say that citizens should always be asking themselves: “could I be wrong?” Humanities teachers put a lot of emphasis on critical reading of documents, and training students to look for hidden meanings and unconscious bias in the thoughts of others. But first we should be teaching them to be aware of their own unconscious drives and hidden biases and to develop "epistemic humility." An effective visual tool is the “cognitive bias codex.” When students read about some of these they should recognize how they are just as prone to faulty thinking as people they disagree with.

Schools would make a significant contribution to saving American democracy if they would produce a new generation of citizens with more cognitive empathy, epistemic humility, an understanding of what citizens owe each other, and a determination to foster trust among their fellow citizens. It’s not an immediate solution, and it may not work as intended, but it would be inexcusable not to make the effort.

Notes and sources

On polarization, see Yasha Monk, "The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization," The Atlantic, May 21, 2022.  For a right justification of norm-breaking, see Michael Anton, “The Flight 93 Election,” Claremont Review of Books, originally published under the pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus on Sept. 6, 2019; for a Left-justification, Corey Robin, "Democracy is Norm Erosion," Jacobin, Jan. 29, 2018.

For an example of the perception that schools indoctrinate students in progressive or liberal values, see Ethan King, Letter to the Editor, Caledonian Record, Sept. 2, 2021.

FEC data on teachers and others' political contributions is listed in numerous places.  This one shows high school teachers as 95% Democrat in a graph at the top; below it gives the 83% number.

Amanda Ripley, “I stopped reading the news,” Washington Post, July 8, 2022.

Moira Kelly, Executive Director and President of Explo and Associate Producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates spoke about cognitive empathy in her talk, “Promoting Cognitive Empathy in a Polarized Society,” at the AISNE Annual Diversity Conference, Lexington, Mass., Nov. 2016. Kelly argues that citizenship requires cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy, which can be counter productive. On this negative potential for emotional empathy, see Jodi Clarke, “Cognitive vs. Emotional Empathy” at “When our vicarious emotional arousal becomes too great, it can actually get in the way of us being compassionate and empathizing. Feeling emotionally dysregulated can become overwhelming and result in feeling burned out. Ultimately, this leaves you not wanting to practice empathy because it's too painful to be there for someone else. Our ability to practice emotional empathy becomes a threat to our own well-being when it results in feelings of isolation, being misunderstood, and feeling inauthentic.”  Kelly also argued that the best method for teaching cognitive empathy is the Harkness Method, pioneered at Phillips Exeter Academy.

On “Forebearance,” see Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (2018).

The “How to Stop a Civil War,” Atlantic issue was December, 2019. See, esp. Andrew Ferguson, “Can this Marriage be Saved?” 86-90.  See also, the Podcast featuring Danielle Allen discussing the issue. A  Single copy of the December 2019 is available on Amazon.

Braver Angels website

Upcoming related posts on this blog (maybe--school year starts soon): How Joel Kushner seeks to foster trust among students in his racially and socioeconomically diverse classroom; My reading notes: the source of “Political Friendship”; You could be wrong; Teaching citizenship vs. teaching social justice.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Teaching about economic inequality

I was listening to a podcast called Pitchfork Economics, when Thomas Picketty’s theory about the cause of inequality in capitalist economies came up (Wikipedia: “the rate of capital return in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this will cause wealth inequality to increase in the future”). It’s a valid thesis, the podcasters said, but a better explanation can be found by playing the game of Monopoly, which was designed to teach kids about capitalism and how it works. The outcome of every game is that one person ends up with all the money and everyone else ends bankrupt.

Just a game you say? Maybe not.

According to Nick Hanauer, the host of the podcast, Monopoly and capitalism are both “non-ergotic systems,” governed by path-dependence (past events or decisions constrain later events or decisions), luck, and the compounding of advantages and disadvantages.

Not all games are non-ergotic, they noted.  Two equally skilled tic tac toe contestants will always end in a tie. Two good checkers players will end up winning an equal number of games over time. Those games are ergotic.

One difference between Monopoly and capitalism, Hanauer says: Monopoly is more meritocratic since every player begins with an equal amount of money.  At the start of adult life in American capitalism, there is a huge gulf between the best and worst off of us.  To replicate that system in the game, one player would start with $1.5 million, they estimate, another would start off in debt.  Most everyone else would be arranged above and below the median for 20-year olds (it's $13,900 for Americans under 35, according to one source, for for 20-year-olds, who knows?).  

Also, in actually-existing capitalism, once you get enough money you can spend it to change the rules in your favor.

The next day I happened to catch the NPR show, “Throughline,” on the history of Monopoly. It was invented by Lizzie Magie, and patented in 1904 as “The Landlord Game,” to teach players “how rents enrich property owners and impoverish tenants” (Wikipedia). Today we seem to think of the game as a celebration of capitalism, but that was not Magie’s intent. She was a devotee of Henry George, a popular critic of free-market capitalism during the Gilded Age, and hoped playing the game would increase support for redistributive policys like George’s single tax on land. She also developed an alternate set of rules designed to show how a more just system would work (every player was rewarded when wealth increased in society).

I forwarded a version of this post to two economics teachers I know. Maybe they will have their students play Monopoly.

The Throughline episode also convinced me that Henry George probably deserves more attention than I give him in the winter term of US history.


Mary Pilon, The Monopolists: Obession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Game. 

"Do not Pass Go,”  Throughline, June 30, 2022.  Also interesting from the episode: During the Depression, Charles Darrow claimed to have invented the game in his basement (he was taught the rules by a friend) and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1934. Magie sued for patent infringement and was awarded a meger $500 for rights to the game. She mistakenly thought the Parker Brothers’ version would advance her anti-capitalist goals. In 1973, Ralph Anspach created a game he called “Anti-Monopoly” and was then sued by Parker Brothers.

“Ask Nick Anything,” Pitchfork Economics, July 5, 2022, @17:45-24:10

See also, on non-ergonomic systems:

Jason Zweig, “Disturbing New Facts About American Capitalism,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2017.  

“Winner take all," Ergodicity Economics, March 6, 2017.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Anti-authoritarianism is anti-racist

“Capitol Jan 6” by Blink O’fanaye
A scene from Jan. 6.

Over the past quarter century, the world has seen a disturbing revival of authoritarianism. According to the cover of the December Atlantic, in the struggle between despotism and democracy, "the bad guys are winning." A Times pundit asks whether 2024 will be the year democracy dies in the US.  Freedom House, in a colossal understatement, says we are in the “longest democratic slump of its kind” in the 40 years they’ve been monitoring democracy.

The greatest threat comes from right-wing populists, like the mob that stormed the capital, or the dictators who hold actual power in Europe. Yet illiberal behavior is also showing up in liberal institutions controlled by the left. While that behavior doesn’t pose as direct a threat to the survival of democracy, it threatens to seriously hamper the fight against authoritarianism.

The case of Democratic data analyst David Shor is instructive.  In a tweet, Shor suggested that outbreaks of arson, looting and violence during the George Floyd protests could hurt the party’s chances of winning in November. He included a link to a scholarly article by a Black Princeton professor to support the claim. After a left-wing Twitter mob and some co-workers attacked Shor for “minimizing Black grief and rage” (among other things) and flooded his employer, Civis Analytics, with demands he be fired, Shor apologized but was fired anyway.

What’s particularly troubling about this case from an anti-authoritarian point of view is that Shor, a self-proclaimed socialist, is one of the most insightful Democratic strategists working for the party. A “data guru,” who pioneered new data analysis methods that proved “spookily accurate” in the 2012 election, according to liberal pundits Erik Levitz  and Ezra Klein, his firing is a painful example of how purging dissenters hampers the good guys in their effort to wrest power from authoritarians.

Shor is just one incident, but such examples abound on the left—firings or forced resignations, investigations, demotions, suspensions, de-platforming, book bans, black-listing.

(Of course, cancellation is also common on the authoritarian right in even more consequential ways. Republicans who defy Trump are driven out of Congress; death threats are lodged against Democratic and Republican public officials for doing their jobs.)

Matt Yglesias summed up the principle behind Shor’s firing. According to the logic of anti-racism as it’s now practiced, he said, “it’s categorically wrong for a person—or at least a white person—to criticize on tactical or other grounds anything being done in the name of racial justice.”

That, he continues, is “going to be a big problem for progressive politics if it becomes impossible to have frank conversations around the tactics and substance of race-related issues.”

Yglesias wrote about Shor’s firing in the aftermath of another controversy, over an open letter in Harper’s Magazine, signed by 153 prominent intellectuals defending free speech against the constriction of debate, leftist censoriousness, “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”  Emily VanDerWerff, a trans-gender co-worker, tweeted that Yglesias, by signing the letter, made her “feel less safe at Vox,” where they both worked.  Although the signers included left-wing stalwarts like Noam Chomsky, African Americans like the historian Nell Irving Painter, and at least one trans woman, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, VanDerWerff objected to Yglesias signing the letter because, she claimed, it had also been signed by “several prominent anti-trans voices” (presumably including J.K. Rowling). She also claimed that it included anti-trans “dog whistles,” though she never identified them. VanDerWerff tweeted her critique and then became the object herself of a hostile Twitter mob, illustrating that cancellation comes from every direction.

Yglesias left Vox a few months later and established a new blog at Substack, citing a desire to “be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice.”  In doing so, he joined a group of prominent journalists fleeing established liberal or centrist publications, where they felt their perspectives were no longer welcome, for their own blogging or podcasting platforms: Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani left The Intercept, Bari Weiss and Nellie Bowles The Times, Tara Henley, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Katie Herzog The Stranger, and Andrew Sullivan New York Magazine.

Asked if the conflict over the Harper’s letter had anything to do with his departure from Vox, Yglesias said: “Something we’ve seen in a lot of organizations is increasing sensitivity about language and what people say… It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas, and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.” 

Yglesias and Shor landed on their feet. When high-profile or wealthy individuals are canceled, it can bolster their careers. But dissenters who lack a big following are not likely to fare so well. And even more damaging to institutions like Vox and Civis Analytics than losing prominent individuals like Shor and Yglesias is the chilling of dissent among the rank and file who remain, and who can’t afford to lose their jobs.

The New York Times, which has itself been at the center of a number of such controversies, has even assigned a reporter to cover the cancellation beat. Michael Powell has written about the illiberal behavior of liberal institutions and individuals at MIT, Smith College, the ACLU, the Democratic Socialists of America, the University of North Texas, epidemiologists, and elite private schools.

Asked in an interview whether such incidents added up to a significant trend that we should be worried about, Powell said they “almost certainly” did. He said that of the 15 tenured professors he spoke with at Smith College, none of them, with “perhaps one exception,” “disputed that there was an illiberal stream running through liberal higher education.” None were willing to go on the record, and some of them even denounced the sentiments they had expressed to Powell during a subsequent faculty meeting, apparently in a craven effort to cover their tracks.

In their “Scholars Under Fire” database of actions against university professors “for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech,” FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) lists 237 such incidents coming “from the right” and 321 “from the left” since 2015. 

Anne Applebaum spoke with some of the academics who have been targeted for violating new “social codes” for an article in the Atlantic Even worse than any formal punishments, it seems, is the social ostracism that follows such charges. Once an accusation has been lodged, she writes:

The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic. "I have in my department dozens of colleagues—I think I have spoken to zero of them in the past year," one academic told me. … "I wake up every morning afraid to teach," [another said]… The university campus that he once loved has become a hazardous jungle, full of traps.
Illiberalism on the left is supported by theories that dismiss as based in patriarchy and white supremacy things like open debate, reason, objectivity, and democratic process—essentially the bedrock principles of liberal democracy. In an earlier post, I mentioned Ibram X. Kendi’s call to give an unelected committee made up of “experts on race” the power to invalidate any law enacted by any democratically elected governmental body if it is judged to increase racial disparities.

I also wrote about a popular diversity training method that identifies European Enlightenment culture as white and inherently racist.

I hesitate to wade into the contentious debate over critical race theory here—or to seem to side with conservatives who have used it to discredit all anti-racist efforts, but there is no denying that CRT sees rationalism and free speech as tools of oppression rather than liberation. In their brief, sympathetic introduction to the theory, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic say that “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (Delgado and Stefancic, 3).

The theory itself is not actually taught in K-12 schools, but it’s dishonest to suggest that CRT and other post-modern theories have no presence in America’s grade schools when they are used extensively in education programs that train teachers and administrators.  Delgado and Stefancic celebrate this fact, noting that “many scholars in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists” (7).

Opinion polls have also shown that the rise of illiberal sentiment is not confined to right-leaning voters. In 2014, when President Obama’s legislative agenda was being stymied by a Republican Congress, 30 percent of Democrats said they were in favor of a president closing Congress and governing without it “when the country is facing very difficult times”—something even Lincoln didn’t do during the Civil War. “A 2019 survey by political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland found that around 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans thought violence would be justified if the opposing party won the 2020 election.”

A Cato Institute survey found that while 36 percent of “strong conservatives” say they would support the firing of employees because they donated to Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020, 50 percent of strong liberals said the same about employees who contributed to Trump’s campaign. The survey also found that the percentage of Americans who say they self-censor to avoid offense has risen from 58 percent in 2017 to 62 percent in 2020. Those 2020 numbers were higher for conservatives at 77 percent than for liberals, at 52 percent.

I don’t think you can save liberal democracy by embracing a less bad version of authoritarianism. Winning strategies to save democracy and defeat racism are less likely to emerge from dogmatic acceptance of untested theories or the silencing of dissenters among the "good guys" than from a reasoned discussion of competing ideas and consideration of the best available data—the very methods of the enlightened liberalism we are trying to save.

Institutions of higher education play an important role in such efforts because that is where citizens learn those methods and get practice using them.

And I can think of no school better suited to that role than one that has placed a seminar table in every classroom.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to my series on teaching anti-racism)

On the decline of liberal values.

Karen Stenner and Jessica Stern, “How to Live With Authoritarians,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2021.

German Feierherd, Noam Lupu, and Susan Stokes, “A significant minority of Americans say they could support a military takeover of the U.S. government,” Washington Post, February 16, 2018.

Emily Ekins “Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share,” Cato Institute, July 22, 2020. 

Sally Satel, “The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left,” The Atlantic, Sept. 25, 2021. 

Thomas Edsall, "'The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment,’" New York Times, July 22, 2020. Edsall reviews theories about the relative strength of authoritarianism on the right and left. "Disputes over differences in judgment, character and moral values between liberals and conservatives are among the most fraught topics in political psychology," he writes. Edsall seems to come down on the side of Karen Stenner, who is quoted in the title of the piece. She added: "But the fault lies with authoritarians on both the right and the left, and the solution is in the hands of non-authoritarians on both sides."

On the threat from the right.

Why put so much effort into criticizing illiberalism on the left, when what’s happening on the right is so much worse? My answer to this question is simple. Democrats can’t win elections without attracting a certain number of working class white voters and left-wing illiberalism seems to be driving voters away from the Democratic Party.

Right-wing authoritarianism poses the greater threat to democracy. The January Atlantic Magazine catalogues efforts by Trump supporters to gain control over electoral processes in the states so they can assure Trump is restored to the presidency in 2025 regardless of the vote totals in November 2024. The Atlantic puts it this way: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.” 

But for all of that, it’s important to remember that even without stealing elections, Republicans are fairly successful at getting Americans to vote for them. Trump got 74 million votes in 2020—including more ethnic minority votes than he got in 2016. Republicans control of 60 percent of state legislative chambers, 67 percent of the Supreme Court, which was the final arbiter in the 2000 presidential election, and the odds are good that thanks to their success in gerrymandering and voter suppression, they will take over Congress in the 2022 midterm election. Democrats will have to win the popular vote by about 3 percent to carry the electoral college and keep the presidency in 2024. Biden’s low approval record suggests this will be an uphill battle.

In their 2012 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein used the term “asymmetric polarization,” to illustrate how the right was more responsible for the decline of America’s civic culture.

Michael Powell’s most recent piece focused on the impact on Texas public schools of a conservative anti-CRT law, which prohibits teachers from eliciting feelings of “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” or using the Times’ 1619 Project in their classes. In his interview with Yasha Mounk, Powell characterized what he saw in Texas as “a funhouse mirror of what you see on the left” and concluded that “it’s a bad place for freedom of inquiry right now.”

Spencer Bokat-Lindell, “Will 2024 Be the Year American Democracy Dies?” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2021 

Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020). On the last pages of the book, Applebaum, an anti-Trump conservative, calls for "new coalitions," presumably among anti-authoritarians of the right and left.  In the Twilight and her December cover story in the Atlantic, Applebaum focuses mainly on anti-liberalism on the right, but an earlier Atlantic piece attacked left-wing illiberal behavior. The December piece also lamented that the American left is so busy engaging in circular firing squads that it is failing to counter the rise of authoritarianism abroad.

Focused on America’s own bitter problems, they [Americans on the left] no longer believe America has anything to offer the rest of the world: Although the Hong Kong prodemocracy protesters waving American flags believe many of the same things we believe, their requests for American support in 2019 did not elicit a significant wave of youthful activism in the United States, not even something comparable to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
Incorrectly identifying the promotion of democracy around the world with “forever wars,” they fail to understand the brutality of the zero-sum competition now unfolding in front of us. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics. If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy, if America ceases to interest itself in the fate of other democracies and democratic movements, then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and ideas.
On safetyism and “cancel culture”

On VanDerWerff’s charge that Yglesias made her feel unsafe by signing the Harper’s letter, see Berny Belvedere, “Harper’s scarlet letter: Matthew Yglesias, free speech, and cancel culture,” Arc Digital, July 12, 2020. “The suggestion that taking the contrary position literally endangers those on the opposing side has a clinching effect—the debate can’t continue. It is shut down because of safety concerns,” Belvedere wrote. Claims that the expression of certain points of view endanger the safety of some people are widespread on the left, as when some New York Times reporters claimed their safety was endangered by the printing of a Tom Cotton editorial during the George Floyd protests in 2020. Belvedere also presents an example of how the helpful concept of political “dog whistles” can be used in bad faith to claim the ill-intent of any viewpoint. There is also a definition of “cancel culture,” which would suggest that, although Yglesias wasn’t forced to resign, he might still be considered a victim of a cancellation. It is a useful definition, worth quoting at length:
I think we see a targeting as a cancellation when the person who is in the crosshairs is there for views we think should continue to be seen as discourse legitimate. Since there is considerable difference of opinion regarding what our discourse parameters should be, this naturally leads to wildly divergent applications of “cancel culture”—it leads to people substantially disagreeing about whether a particular targeting counts as a cancellation or not.

Blake Neff, a longtime senior writer for Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, was fired when his relentlessly racist and sexist online comments under a pseudonym came to light. Is this a cancellation? This one isn’t hard at all. It’s manifestly not [because not discourse legitimate]….

If one thinks the views in question are seriously inappropriate, the offending person’s termination won’t be seen as a “cancellation” but as a righteous application of discourse accountability. It follows that, on some occasions, our “cancel culture totally exists!/cancel culture is totally nonexistent!” back-and-forths are really just disguised ways of saying “I think this view should continue to be debated!/I think this view should not be up for discussion!”

A harder thing to pin down is when exactly reputational damage, rather than employment status, counts as “cancel culture.”

I suggest not conceiving of cancel culture as primarily having to do with outcomes. This is tough when the name itself, “cancel,” is a success term. If someone has not actually been canceled, then how can their targeting be called a cancellation? It makes intuitive sense to require a cancellation to involve a genuine canceling.

But I want to move away from this understanding of it because, often times, the outcomes are predicated on arbitrary factors like whether the target is independently wealthy, or how amenable their boss is to outspokenness, or how fearful their university is of lawsuits, or any number of other luck-based factors that take us away from the supposedly inappropriate actions.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Viewpoint diversity supports antiracism

Viewpoint diversity at the Harkness table

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2

A great strength of the school where I teach is the racial and ethnic diversity of its student body. It's a strength that is cultivated by the admissions department, and rightly celebrated and boasted about in our promotional literature.  Less attention is paid to diversity of viewpoint. 

In my politics class, I am lucky if I have one student out of 12 who identifies as conservative, and most of them are quick to say that they are only conservative on economic issues.  I can only recall one outspoken cultural conservative in recent years and she paid a social price for voicing her opinion—a cost few adolescents are willing to bear. Her experience illustrates why conservatives on campus, among both students and faculty, tend to keep their opinions to themselves. 

But their silence shrinks the political discourse on campus and therefore diminishes the political education that our students are getting; it doesn’t prepare them for the political milieu of the country they live in. The American electorate does not resemble the political climate in schools like Exeter.  And the stifling of dissent and the establishment of ideological monocultures contribute to the nation’s political polarization, which threatens the very survival of democracy.

Students who adhere to a group’s majority viewpoint rarely have to defend their position. Meanwhile, dissenters go underground with like-minded peers into an echo-chamber within an echo-chamber. Or they might rebel. The LA Times tells the story of Trump aide Stephen Miller, who rebelled against what he saw as a “campus indoctrination machine” at Samohi High School in “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” In doing so, he mastered the tactics of lib-baiting that catapult him to prominence as a Trump troll. Samohi classmate Kesha Ram, a Vermont state representative who campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2020, told the Times “I think it helped him to be a stronger advocate for his position to go to a high school like ours.”

Exeter has not produced any Stephen Millers as far as I know, but I’ve often thought that our outspoken conservative students, who have to frequently explain their position, become much better at defending their ideas and values than liberal students do. It’s almost like we've created a boot camp for conservatives.

It’s impossible to know how many public schools have become liberal or conservative echo chambers. The New York Times reports that conservative Christian schools are experiencing an enrollment boom as parents pull their children out of schools they perceive as engaging in left-wing indoctrination.  Meanwhile, parents told Times reporter Michael Powell that elite private schools are imposing a “suffocating and destructive” anti-racist and diversity “groupthink” on their children.  Critics perceive a similar environment at the nation’s elite colleges. Yale English Professor William Deresiewicz says that elite universities,
don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice. That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger.

This comment brought to mind Malcolm Nance’s cringe-inducing defense of critical race theory against Ben Shapiro’s scathing attack. Anyone looking for a persuasive defense of CRT would not find it here.

Nance’s performance suggests he agrees with the Williams College professor who denigrated “intellectual debate” because it “comes from a world in which white men dominated.”  Of course the Bill Maher show is not the best place to work out our differences. Cable TV and social media have polarized the electorate to a point where democracy can’t seem to function. But if institutions of higher education also increase polarization, we are in deep trouble. Surely Williams College and Phillips Exeter Academy are places where intellectual deliberation (a word I prefer to “debate”) between people with different viewpoints can take place and where some common ground might be found.

To make this happen, institutions of higher education need to return to their core mission of pursuing truth and this requires making it safe to dissent from majority viewpoints within, of course, the bounds of civility (see note on Palfrey, below).

Not only does exposure to strong opposing arguments teach people to defend their views, it also fosters understanding, empathy and tolerance of fellow citizens who think differently while helping us to refine and improve our own thinking. On the other hand, research has shown that those who live and work among people who agree with them become more extreme in their views and less tolerant (Hess and McAvoy, 26).

Exeter’s dearth of conservative voices goes back as long as I’ve been there—24 years. But anti-racism threatens to silence another large group of voices and narrow the political discourse even further. Lots of people who tend to vote for Democrats and support most items on the liberal or even leftist agenda do not subscribe to the entire anti-racist/diversity orthodoxy. They may emphasize class over race, or have reservations about “identity politics” and the post-modernist theories that seem to be behind much of that orthodoxy.

This group spans a wide range of opinion on the left, ranging from moderate liberals to Jacobin-reading socialists, and includes people of all races and genders—like the 87 percent of Hispanic or Latino Americans who have heard about the new term “Latinx” but decline to use it.  Or the 40 percent who say they are offended by it.

Conflicts among liberals in school environments are mostly hidden from public view. Michael Powell has had trouble getting teachers, professors, administrators and even parents to go on the record criticizing the anti-racist orthodoxy at elite schools and universities. A white mother of a private school student told Powell that speaking out was “laden with risk. ‘People and companies are petrified of being labeled racists,’ she said.” Parents are also loath to jeopardize their children’s position at selective schools. 

If knowledge-producing institutions offer fewer opportunities for truth to collide with error, our view of reality will become hazier and our ability to solve or mitigate problems—including racism—will deteriorate.  

The dynamics that reduce dissent on campus are mostly hidden because of a usually-appropriate desire to protect the privacy of students and employees.  Political parties and the media are less constrained by privacy concerns, so the dynamics of epistemic closure are more apparent there.  My next blog post will explore some of these dynamics, which may offer insights into what is happening in less-public venues.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

William Deresiewicz, “On Political Correctness, Power, class, and the new campus religion,” The American Scholar, Nov. 2, 2021.

John Palfrey, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education (2017).  Former Phillips Andover Academy Principal Palfrey makes sensible suggestions for balancing the need to make institutions welcoming for people from diverse backgrounds with the values of free speech. .

Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, (2015).

Hannah Natanson, “A white teacher taught white students about white privilege. It cost him his job.” Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2021.  Though it ends with the firing of a liberal teacher from what seems to be a conservative echo-chamber, the beginning of this article reads like a case study in why it is important to provide viewpoint diversity in a high school. Conservative students said this about their experience in a classroom with Matthew Hawn, a teacher who exposed them to a liberal point of view:

“It made me think, from that point on, that I can change my mind on issues,” said Thomas, who is majoring in history at East Tennessee State University because Hawn’s class inspired a love for the subject.

Before meeting Hawn, Thomas said, “I don’t know if I could have been the type of guy to listen to other people’s arguments, or see from their point of view.”
Sadly, Hawn was fired after being accused of imposing his political views on his students.

Ted Balaker, “The Unseen Side of ‘Cancel Culture,’” Persuasion, Dec 17, 2021.  Filmmaker Ted Balaker writes that “the threat to free expression goes well beyond high-profile cancellations,’” and more often happens in subtle ways in which the diversity and anti-racist agenda stifles freedom of expression, if not of thought. He concludes:
Students tell me they engage in a kind of “pre-canceling,” which includes scrubbing their social media feeds of anything a grad school or future employer might find problematic. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) discovered that many students fear their college would punish them for saying something deemed “offensive,” and that fear contributes to widespread self-censorship among students. Young people are most likely to shy away from topics like race and sex, topics that lie at the center of some of our most intractable problems. How can we improve society if we’re afraid to discuss important issues openly?

In short, cancel culture’s biggest blow doesn’t strike Dave Chappelle, or any individual person. It strikes what so many defenders and deniers of cancel culture care about so much—progress. And that strikes us all.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, "B. 'Internal' Criticism," in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3d ed. (2017), 104-108. Not only do all Democratic-Party-voting people not agree with each other on every point, even the practitioners of critical race theory have their (substantial) differences. As a strategy for advancing racial justice, CRT would seem to need lots of open, frank discussion among people of good will before adopting it as a totalizing system of thought.

On "Latinx": This author, writing on the NBC News website, explains why Americans with roots in Latin America do not prefer the term Latinx.  Use of the term by Democratic politicians is driving Latino voters away from the party according to Politico.  And the Atlantic reports that Democratic politicians are increasingly declining to use the term.  

Julian Sanchez, "Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt,", March 26th, 2010.  Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez appropriated the term "epistemic closure" from philosophy to describe what was happening within movement conservatism back in 2010.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy....

It’s fundamentally a symptom of insecurity—and a self-defeating one, because it corrodes the kind of serious discussion and reexamination of conservative principles and policies that might help produce a more self-assured movement.