Saturday, September 16, 2023

Eight Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens

To conclude this series of posts on “I could be wrong” stickers and civics education, here are some of the things I do to to promote epistemic humility and tolerance of opposing viewpoints—and thus, I hope, good citizenship.

1. I hand out the stickers to remind students of their mental fallibility. I also give out the “You Could be Wrong Uncle Sam” poster, with a list of quotes by famous people endorsing epistemic humility.

2. I have them read articles about cognitive biases of humans that prevent objectivity and clear thinking. The Cognitive Bias Codex identifies 188 such biases and hangs on the wall of my classroom and a bulletin board outside in the hallway.  The goal is to make them aware of how our brains often lead us astray in ways. For example, “naïve realism,” leads us to be realistic about other people's cognitive shortcomings and but naïve about about our own.  We learn about the concept of Cognitive Dissonance and how we are motivated to ignore things that contradict our world view because an unpredictable world is a scary one. It explains the feeling of discomfort we get when we read a persuasive essay arguing against one of our beliefs. Lest they think their world-class education will inoculate them against these biases, I have them read about studies that show that more education makes people less open minded and more biased. E.G: “The science literacy paradox: Why really smart people tend to have the most biased opinions.”

3. I try to balance the reading list across the political spectrum and make sure to pick well-argued essays from points of view that I don’t agree with. I’ve had students complain that my reading list is too conservative, even though my politics are about as far left as anyone on campus—although reading those articles has shifted my thinking on some issues. Unless there’s a good pedagogical reason, I don’t share my political viewpoint. When students try to guess they usually get it wrong.

4. I exposed to theories that examine the moral basis of political differences, like Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory, or the Schwartz Theory of Basic Human Values, which illustrate that people who disagree with them aren’t morally deficient.  

5. I have them read the history of the two parties and conservative and liberal ideology over the past 60 years and the rise of right and left populism over the past decade, beginning with the Occupy and Tea Party movements. That history shows there is no one position that is free of blame for America’s political dysfunction. We also read about systemic features of the Constitution, journalism, and social media and how they encourage vilification of our political rivals and increase polarization. I try to make them see the limitations of the left-right/ liberal/conservative binary, as a way of categorizing American political ideologies, by exposing them to heterodox thinkers and a website called the Political Compass, which plots ideologies onto a four-quadrant grid.

6. I try to focus half the course on policy issues, which shows there are no simple answers and that political ideologies and partisan politics often get in the way of adopting the best solutions to our common problems.

7. I take my students to a meeting of the Exeter Board of Selectmen to expose them to local politics. Unfortunately, culture wars are trickling down, but town politics still offer an example of more collaborative, non-partisan governance than we see at the national level.

8. I’ve used role playing, especially in the law course I taught for years, when students re-enact a Supreme Court oral argument, taking positions they may disagree with. It’s an excellent exercise in cognitive empathy. Joel Kushner’s more elaborate legislative re-enactments are described in The Political Classroom (Chapter 6).


Eitan Hersh, Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change.

M.C. Nisbet, "The Science Literacy Paradox: Why Really Smart People Often Have the Most Biased Opinions,” Skeptical Inquirer, 2016, 21-23. Link.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion .

Shalom H. Schwartz, “Understanding values: Schwartz theory of basic values,” Integration and Implementation Insights, May 10, 2022. Link.

This series: Part 1: Could I Be Wrong?  (civics education and epistemic humility); Part 2: Social Justice?  (Teaching citizenship to students with different values) and Part 3: Believe Science?  (curbing meritocratic hubris in tomorrow's leaders); Part 4: 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Believe Science?

(Third in a series. Also: Could I Be Wrong?  Social Justice?)

During the pandemic, lawn signs appeared on some of my neighbors’ lawns proclaiming what “in this house, we believe.”

The signs could be taken to suggest that folks in houses without the signs—and certainly people in houses with Trump signs on the lawn—might think that Black lives don’t matter, that love and science aren’t real, that some humans are illegal, that women aren’t entitled to human rights.

In fact, though, each of what seemed to be incontestable statements of fact—love is love—or unassailable ethical propositions—Black lives matter—were hiding issues over which reasonable, decent people might differ. Wanting more border security doesn’t make you think some humans are illegal. Opposing abortion doesn’t mean you think women don’t deserve human rights.

At the heart of the list is the slogan, expressed elsewhere, “Believe Science,” as if science is a set of uncontested facts that you either believe or don’t.

In fact, the sciences are specialized fields of usually contested and developing knowledge that are difficult or impossible for most non-specialists to interpret, so it’s hard to know which science to believe.

What “believe science” really ends up meaning for most of us is “trust experts” who interpret science for us. Or perhaps more often, “believe journalists” who sift through the various controversies and disagreements among the scientists, and write about it for a general audience in the popular press.

Let’s face it, though, journalists, experts, and even scientists often get things wrong, and so people who don’t share the general liberal inclinations of the vast majority of journalists and credentialed experts and are skeptical of claims to objective neutrality or uncontestable truth, have come up with their own slogan along the lines of “do your own research.”

Even those of us who might be more inclined to rely on experts and journalists surely have to be aware of the many failures of scientific authority.

Not only do scientists disagree with each other on most matters, but even an apparently settled scientific consensus will occasionally get overturned. It seems that every day a new study comes out challenging the existing “science” of human nutrition, for example. Should I avoid fats or not?

When we get away from the hard sciences into social “sciences” like economics, psychology or sociology, the knowledge becomes increasingly shaky, more susceptible to bias, blind spots, social pressure, groupthink, and self-interest.

Perhaps the most consequential recent failure of one of these would-be sciences caused the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Some of the most respected economists (think Ivy League) were paid hefty consulting fees to give positive credit ratings to banks that had invested in badly inflated real estate before the melt-down in the market that caused untold misery during the Great Recession of 2008. In the documentary film, Inside Job, one of the Ivy League professors who took consulting fees to give ill-conceived AAA ratings responds to an interviewer who challenges his integrity by shutting down the interview. He seems offended that anyone would question his righteousness.

Performances like this contribute to a growing disillusionment that leads more and more of us—not to think that science isn’t real—but to question the rule of the educated class of elites who claim exclusive access to scientific understanding. The past 40 years of technocratic rule have led to things like the rust belt, atomization and loneliness, rising homelessness, stagnant wages and a decline in social mobility, deaths of despair, mass incarceration, economic insecurity, declining mortality rates, obesity, and the collapse of unions. Every institution led by this meritocratic elite has seen a dramatic decline in public confidence.

For the past quarter century, I’ve worked at one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, preparing my students to enter the class of the best educated people in the world—our future rulers. One of the most powerful members of the contemporary ruling class, in fact, sat in my classroom for a term.

I’ve had to ask myself if maybe we’ve been doing something wrong in the way we prepare our students to rule. Are we generating hubris in tomorrow’s ruling class? Could it be the inflated grades? The caving in to demanding parents? The constant stream of assembly speakers who call our students the “best and brightest”? Our claim to be teaching “goodness” and “anti-racism” and “social justice” along with knowledge? Or maybe it’s the demanding workload we impose on them. Previous generations of elites didn’t have to work so hard for their diploma and graduated with a better understanding of how their success rested on privilege and class, not just their own merit.

Old alums have told me that they got into Harvard back in the day with C grades at Exeter. Today, only straight-A students get in, but even that’s not enough. They need a long list of extra-curricular achievements, preferably featuring entrepreneurship in the service of a humanitarian cause.

Humility might not come easy to people who have sacrificed their childhoods to a steady stream of achievement and have come out on top in the college admissions Hunger Games (Harvard’s acceptance rate is 4%). The process makes it “impossible to view success as anything other than the result of individual effort and achievement” and leads inevitably to “meritocratic hubris,” Michael Sandel argues in his book, The Tyranny of Merit.

How did we get to this point? According to Sandel, sometime in the middle of the 20th century, leaders in the field of higher education, led by Harvard president James Conant, campaigned to turn American high schools into “sorting machines” for college admissions’ offices of top universities. Our increasingly complex world was going to need really smart people to run it, he believed, and the most elite colleges and universities would be the place to educate these leaders. High schools should be “reconstructed” for the “specific purpose” of identifying the brainiest students to send to the best colleges. “Abilities must be assessed, talents must be developed, ambitions guided. This is the task for our public schools,” he said (159).

This reconstruction of high school did not achieve Conant’s goal of eliminating class boundaries to the elite. The college admissions system disproportionately rewards children from families that have the resources to pay for enrichment activities that will give their kids an edge, and working class kids are more thoroughly excluded than ever. Notwithstanding all the boasting about diversity, equity and inclusion, a 2017 report by the New York Times showed that 38 of the top colleges in the US had more students from the most affluent 1% of families than from the bottom 60%.

Meanwhile, the elite institutions charged with preparing the meritocracy for leadership “place relatively little curricular emphasis on moral and civic education, or the kind of historical studies that prepare students to exercise informed political judgement about public affairs,” says Sandel, who teaches at Harvard. They rarely ask students to “reflect critically on their moral and political convictions” (192). And yet they also leave those students with a feeling of moral and intellectual superiority to the losers in the competition for credentials—the citizens they will be governing.

Sandel argues for an overhaul of this system. In the meantime, is there something those of us toiling away in its bowels can do to lessen meritocratic hubris?

That’s been the goal of my approach to teaching—especially in my two classes on American government and politics—and of this series of blog posts. Does it have an impact? I’ll surely never know. After reading Sandel’s book, it feels a bit like spitting into the ocean. But it’s worth trying.

The next post in this series will offer a brief outline of the strategies I’ve developed in my puny efforts.

Notes and references on lawn signs, meritocracy, and elite hubris.

The Meritocracy

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020). A section of the book that particularly resonated with me was “Wounded Winners,” which spoke of the “damaging toll on the winners” in the race for success. He quotes a researcher who says that today, “the most troubled adolescents often come from affluent homes.” Sandel argues that it’s caused by an “unrelenting pressure to perform” (180).

On how the upper middle class has dominated the college admissions game, see Matthew Stewart, “The 9.9 percent is the New American Aristocracy,” The Atlantic, June 2012.

On income distribution of students at elite schools, see: “The Upshot: Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 2017.

Lawn signs.

An irony of the lawn signs that promote unquestioning adherence to the dictates of established authority is that they adorn the lawns of people on the left, who in the past were more likely to sport bumper stickers saying: “question authority.” Some more readings on the signs and the sentiments behind them:

Kate Arnoff, in “Believe Science is a Bad Response to Denialism,” The New Republic, April 27, 2020, wrotes: “Liberals’ glorification of expertise amid the coronavirus and climate crises reveals their own distrust of democracy” and:

Appeals to “capital-s science,” as the theorist Donna Haraway has put it, tap into a basic mistrust of democratic institutions’ ability to navigate uncertain times: trust the experts, and give them whatever they need to get things back to normal. “Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority—this trick will become familiar in the coming months,” James Butler wrote for the London Review of Books recently. “An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy.” 
Hadley Heath Manning, “Your social justice yard sign contributes to division, not discourse,” Denver Post, Sept. 7, 2020: “The signs give cheap cursory treatment to a series of serious issues and imply that only one worldview is acceptable. The signs suggest that, outside of homes displaying them, hatred and bigotry are the norm and only hatred and bigotry can explain any departure from the sign’s political creed.” The signs amount to “collective shaming of those who hold conservative beliefs.”

To understand Manning’s response, it’s helpful to consider Monica Guzman’s discussion of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Human Values. The wording of the lawn signs suggests a one-dimensional moral problem. Either you believe in Justice or equity, or tolerance, or you don’t. In reality, though, each of those issues “puts some fundamentally good values into tension with one another … It’s easy to mistake a different ordering of values for an absence of the ones we care about most—and judge people accordingly.” All policy decisions involve trade-offs between competing goods. See Monica Guzman, I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, 171-172.

Economy experts.

Inside Job, won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2011. It’s hard to watch this film and keep trusting economic experts.

Many academic economists who had advocated for deregulation for decades and helped shape U.S. policy still opposed reform after the 2008 crisis.…. Many of these economists were paid consultants to companies and other groups involved in the financial crisis, conflicts of interest that were often not disclosed in their research papers. Wikipedia

The essence of the film is captured in this segment about it on the PBS NewsHour.  The clip featuring Glenn Hubbard, Dean of the Columbia business school, gives a flavor of how the film undermines faith in the expertise of academic economists.

Larry Summers is an economic expert—and a former President of Harvard University—who has played an enormous role in shaping policy since the 1990s. In this interview, non-expert John Stewart makes the case that Summers’ policies always squelch inflation in a way that keeps profits flowing to capital at the expense of labor and wages.  If you are interested in the relationship between inflation and wages, and an alternative to the policy the FED is following and that Summers favors, see Dean Baker & Jared Bernstein, Getting Back to Full Employment See also.

We need a revival of the term “political economy,” which acknowledges that there is no one scientific answer to every question about economic policy, but rather that every policy involves trade-offs that help some and hurt others, and so can only be addressed through a political process. When policy makers seek a balance between fighting unemployment and fighting inflation, for example, they will inevitably be making a choice of who benefits from the policy and who has to make a sacrifice (see Danielle Allen’s revealing discussion of sacrifice in the context of unemployment/inflation in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, 37-49).

The attempt by the economists to frame their discipline as a hard science revealing laws of nature that must be obeyed, somehow always ends up supporting policies that serve the economic class interests of the economists—or their financial patrons. And it’s not the only field where scientific authority is mobilized in support of a particular group’s economic interests. In the 90s, the FDA’s new Food Pyramid exaggerated the amount of grains you should eat in deference to the interests of agribusiness. See Wikipedia.

The podcast “Pitchfork Economics” seeks to debunk the natural-law conceit of economics.

Health experts

Robert Lustig challenges much of the scientific consensus on human nutrition in Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutriton, and Modern Medicine, the segment under the heading, “A Fat is Not a Fat,” pp. 187-191, for example, argues that the consensus on saturated fat turns out to be wrong. One of his chapters is entitled “Dietitians Lost Their Mind.” It could be Lustig who turns out to be wrong, of course!

As a close relative of people with chronic disease, I know that the science of medicine is not good at treating it. Often, instead of admitting their lack of understanding, doctors will tell patients who suffer from long-term lingering after-effects of illnesses like Lyme disease or COVID that it is all in their heads. Lisa Miller chronicles this problem in, “The Mystery of Long COVID Is Just the Beginning,” New York Magazine Intelligencer, August 29, 2023. It’s a profile of Lisa Sanders, who was the inspiration for the TV show “House,” and is currently working on diagnosing and treating Long COVID. It’s bad that medical experts don’t understand these sorts of chronic illnesses. It’s worse that doctors dismiss patients’ concerns and tell them it’s psychosomatic.  Sanders might consider handing out "I could be wrong" stickers to her fellow doctors. Excerpts: 

A tenet of her [Sanders’] value system ... was that doctors should become more comfortable with uncertainty and more willing to cop to what they do not know. “The fact is that, more often than doctors would like to admit, they cannot find a cause for a patient’s symptoms,” she wrote. Unknowing is the first step to solving the puzzle, she believed… 

Young doctors, having spent the past three or four years with their heads in their books, can be “ready to feel absolutely certain that they know what to do,” Sanders tells me. … 

“Super-success” for Sanders would be to be succeeded in the clinic by a team of young, ambitious doctors who can find the same satisfaction that she does in uncertainty: “At the end of every appointment, every doctor has to ask, What am I going to do for this patient—today—to make it better? It’s a more nuanced question, and the answers come from a not totally absolute sense that you know what to do.”  

Some more readings on the misrule of experts

See Ewald Engelen et al., “Misrule of Experts? The Financial Crisis as Elite Debacle,” Center for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, March 2011. The paper questions “the politicized role of technocrats after the 1980s and emphasizes the need to bring private finance and its public regulators under democratic political control whose technical precondition is a dramatic simplification of finance.” The promise of the technocrats is that we can move all kinds of decisions out of the realm of politics into the hands of experts armed with science, creating what James C. Scott calls “antipolitics machines.” See Scott’s, Two Cheers for Anarchism, 111, for a discussion the problem with those machines and a defense of politics.

Christopher Lasch has written extensively about the failure of elites, especially in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

Jesse Singal’s book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, offers a “powerful indictment of the thought leaders and influencers who cut corners as they sell the public half-baked solutions to problems that deserve more serious treatment” (Amazon blurb). Among other things, Singal argues that a shortage of replication studies is undermining the credibility of social science research.

For a critique of the discipline of sociology that says liberal groupthink—opposing any idea that might be seen as blaming victims—has made the field irrelevant to public policy debates, see Chapter 6 of Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, "Sociology, Social Justice, and Victimhood."

History is no less subject to these forces, but at least most of us don’t call ourselves scientists. Historians are practicing a humanity. Peter Novick chronicles the misguided and hopefully now abandoned effort to turn history into a science starting in the late 19th century in That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession.

In this 2022 Washington Post op-ed, conservative pundit George F. Will decries the “insufferable and sometimes mistaken certitudes” of the credentialed “mandrins” who set government policy. COVID 19, he writes, “revived, and then weakened, Americans’ reflex of deference” to experts. But then their policies and recommendations “about masks, school closures and economic shutdowns took a toll that is difficult to quantify, but certainly huge, measured in learning loss, blighted lives and the leakage of trust from public life.”

Echoing Sandel, Will argues that the education and career success of these leaders makes them blind to the limits of their own understanding: “in eluding failure they come to ignore their own fallibility.”

In a recent piece in the Times, Sam Adler-Bell, the liberal historian of conservatism and co-host of the excellent podcast on conservative thinkers, “Know Your Enemy,” discusses the political power of anti-elitism in the Republican Party, and how it favors Trump at the expense of DeSantis in the upcoming presidential primary, revealing a schism between party leaders and most of their voters.

Mr. DeSantis has managed to corral key Republican megadonors, Murdoch media empire executives and conservative thought leaders from National Review to the Claremont Institute. He polls considerably higher than Mr. Trump with wealthy, college-educated, city- and suburb-dwelling Republicans. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, retains his grip on blue-collar, less educated and rural conservatives. For the G.O.P., the primary fight has begun to tell an all-too-familiar story: It’s the elites vs. the rabble. Mr. Trump, for his part, appears to have taken notice of this incipient class divide (and perhaps of the dearth of billionaires rushing to his aid). In the past few weeks, he has skewered Mr. DeSantis as a tool for “globalist” plutocrats and the Republican old guard. Since his indictment by a Manhattan grand jury, Mr. Trump has sought to further solidify his status as the indispensable people’s champion, attacked on all sides by a conspiracy of liberal elites. While donors and operatives may prefer a more housebroken populism, it is Mr. Trump’s surmise that large parts of the base still want the real thing, warts and all.

If his wager pays off, it will be a sign not just of his continued dominance over the Republican Party but also of something deeper: an ongoing revolt against “the best and brightest.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis seems to share the elite snobbery toward the “rabble” that Trump has mobilized against:

In his 2011 book, Mr. DeSantis railed against the “‘leveling’ spirit” that threatens to take hold in a republic, especially among the lower orders. His principal target in the book is “redistributive justice,” by which he apparently means any effort at all to share the benefits of economic growth more equitably—whether using government power to provide for the poor or to guarantee health care, higher wages or jobs.

This profile of Naomi Klein in the Times illustrates how the left wing “question authority” mistrust of elite rule has been adopted and transformed by conspiratorially minded thinkers on the right: Grant Harder, “When Your ‘Doppelganger’ Becomes a Conspiracy Theorist,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 30, 2023. The essay tells the story of how radical left-wing author and activist Naomi Klein’s “doppelganger,” Naomi Wolf, has taken some of her ideas and turned them into conspiracy theories appealing to the right.

As much as Klein recoiled at what Wolf was saying, she also felt the sting of recognition. Klein recalls the uncanny spectacle of seeing a version of her systems-level thesis in “The Shock Doctrine—that elites will take advantage of a crisis to impose their will—twisted by the likes of Wolf, who has described COVID as “a much-hyped medical crisis” that “has taken on the role of being used as a pretext to strip us all of core freedoms.” Klein became both obsessed and repulsed, fascinated and appalled: “I felt like she had taken my ideas, fed them into a bonkers blender and then shared the thought-purée with Tucker Carlson, who nodded vehemently.”

The widespread erosion of faith in any kind of reliable version of reality is a big problem. This piece in the Times shows just how far such skepticism can be taken. Tiffany Hsu, “Falsehoods Follow Close Behind This Summer’s Natural Disasters,” Aug. 30, 2023.  

This series: Part 1: Could I Be Wrong?  (civics education and epistemic humility); Part 2: Social Justice?  (Teaching citizenship to students with different values) and Part 3: Believe Science?  (curbing meritocratic hubris in tomorrow's leaders); Part 4: 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Should We Teach Social Justice?

(Second in a series: Could I Be Wrong?  Believe Science? 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens)

Diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice. Who could be against any of these things?

Protest movements for social justice are undeniably an essential element of democracy. My book looks at African American social justice advocacy during World War I and my US history courses spend a lot of time on how social movements improved American democracy. From time to time, I’ve joined campaigns for contemporary causes.

In the absence of protest, modern representative democracies act almost exclusively in the interest of the classes that control the levers of government—at best about 20 percent of the population. Only under pressure from protest movements do they sometimes throw the bottom 80 a bone. The history of American democracy is unthinkable without the abolition, women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights movements.

But while I want my students to understand the role those movements played in history, I think it would run counter to my role as a teacher to recruit them into a movement that I support or to embrace one particular vision of social justice. I know that many of my colleagues disagree with me about this. And it often seems that my school does too.

But we don’t all agree on the same vision of social justice. If teachers can promote a particular partisan agenda, half the nation’s schools will cultivate right-wing crusaders, and the other half will produce left-wingers, and the electorate will become ever more polarized.

And the dispositions, inclinations and tactics of citizens are the opposite of those required for a political campaign. Where citizens should be open minded, aware of the likely flaws in their thinking and open to compromise, activists and campaigners must suppress their doubts as they crusade for the cause.

I do think it’s possible to play the role of citizen in a spirit of “political friendship” with rivals and still campaign for certain partisan outcomes—but it’s essential to understand the difference between the two and to be able to make the shift into the different roles as appropriate.*

As a teacher at Exeter I try to be as politically neutral as possible in the classroom. When students try to guess my politics, they are wrong more than half the time. But in my free time, I helped students canvass for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 New Hampshire primaries. These students came to support Sanders on their own. I just gave them rides in my car—which still has a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, in the classroom, I make a special effort to support conservative students because they are in such a small minority at the school and I value their presence because it makes for a more realistic political environment in my classroom. They also improve the thinking of liberal students by forcing them to defend their positions.

But we are increasingly living in ideological bubbles. The US is “more geographically polarized today” by party affiliation “than at any point since 1860.”  Which means that public schools have less ideological diversity, and students encounter fewer people with different viewpoints than their parents. Private—especially boarding—schools might offer more diversity, since they can bring students together from different communities, yet they seem to be getting more polarized as well, as Michael Powell showed in his reporting on liberal, elite New York City independent schools and as the recent 12% rise in enrollments in conservative Christian schools suggests.

Teachers can open students’ minds to opposing views by playing the devil’s advocate. But that’s less useful in helping students develop cognitive empathy than encountering real people with sincerely held views (Hess and McAvoy, 117). But in a school where the devil’s advocate is seen as an actual devil, teachers may be discouraged from making his case.

For example, during a DEI faculty workshop I attended, I posed a question to the presenter we had invited to speak. How do we protect the feelings of African-American students in a discussion about Affirmative Action? I was concerned that the conversation might turn to questions about the qualifications of students at our highly selective school who might be beneficiaries of racial preferences.

His answer: the teacher should intercede in the debate and explain why the student opposing affirmative action is wrong.

I agree that some opinions should not be given serious consideration in any classroom. But an important difference between, say, slavery and affirmative action is that one is a settled question in contemporary national politics, and the other is still open and subject to debate. A majority of the US population and the Supreme Court and a significant minority of African Americans oppose Affirmative action according to some polls, and opponents raise legitimate questions about its effectiveness.

If we shut off debate on unresolved questions, how will we resolve them if not through violence and intimidation, or the suppression of basic political rights? And if they can be discussed in Congress and the courts and the nation’s press, to shut them down in schools is to prepare students for a political fantasy world.

Things to read in relation to the above. 

The other Blog posts in this series: Could I be Wrong? Believe Science? Strategies for Teaching Politics (forthcoming).

*In The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson argue that in a representative democracy elected leaders need to be able to shift back and forth between campaign mode and governing mode if they want to govern effectively. One cause of polarization, they argue, is that US election seasons—especially for the presidency—last so long.

For a more useful answer to my question about affirmative action, see Hess and McAvoy, Chapter 5, “A case of Political Friendship,” which looks at the methods that a masterful teacher of politics, Joel Kushner, employed to “mitigate negative costs” in discussions of controversial topics. Also relevant to teaching affirmative action is chapter 8, “Ethics of Framing and Selecting Issues” which makes a helpful distinction between open and closed political debates and how to deal with them differently. I wrote a summary of the chapter here

Public opinion on affirmative action varies according to how the question is asked and who is doing the polling. This June, 2023 poll by Pew says 50% of Americans (including 29% of African Americans) oppose affirmative action in selective college admissions, while only 33% approve.  Like so many issues, if you search hard enough, you can find a poll to support many different positions on affirmative action, but you will never find one that suggests it is not still a matter of controversy. On the other hand, no one even bothers to run polls on whether slavery is a legitimate system of labor.

For an example of an essay that raises legitimate questions about the effectiveness of race-based affirmative action by an Exeter Latina student, see Nataly Delcid, “At private school, my family’s income sets me apart more than ethnicity,” Washington Post, July 12, 2023. She agrees with the 60% of surveyed Americans who told Rice University pollsters in 2019 that affirmative action should be based on family income not race or ethnicity.

Quite understandably, DEI training like the session I mentioned, often backfires. See “Is Your Company’s Diversity Training Making You More Biased?” Psychology Today, June 7, 2017.

According to a recent paper by the economists Ethan Kaplan, Jörg Spenkuch, and Rebecca Sullivan, the U.S. is more geographically polarized today than at any point since 1860, when a geographic cleavage in political preferences was about to send the nation into the Civil War.  See: “The Real Culprit Behind Geographic Polarization,” Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2018.

The term social justice is associated with left-wing causes, but conservatives have their own version of what is socially just—they just call it something different. Efforts in New Hampshire and Florida by conservative politicians to insert content from the conservative online propaganda website PragerU into public school curricula are no better than liberal teachers basing their history courses on content from the Howard Zinn Education Project.  See Steven Porter, “Top education official in NH recommends unaccredited PragerU course for academic credit,” Boston Globe, Aug. 9, 2023. See also my thoughts about the NYT 1619 project as a source for US history educators. 

 This series: Part 1: Could I Be Wrong?  (civics education and epistemic humility); Part 2: Social Justice?  (Teaching citizenship to students with different values) and Part 3: Believe Science?  (curbing meritocratic hubris in tomorrow's leaders); Part 4: 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Could I Be Wrong?

Sometimes I give my students a sticker with the phrase “I could be wrong.” Here’s why.

(First in a series: Social Justice?  Believe Science? 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens)

My school doesn’t have a required civics course. I teach the one class that comes closest, so I’ve given some thought to what an American civics course should do.

The nuts and bolts of government and the US Constitution are obviously essential and students should discuss contemporary policy issues. Some teachers think it’s more important to instill a passion for “social justice,” and to foster a sense of political efficacy and encourage political engagement.

But I agree with those who say that, more than anything else, civics ed should cultivate certain dispositions toward fellow citizens and the truth.

These dispositions are particularly important at a time when Americans are dividing themselves into antagonistic political tribes and mutually incomprehensible information bubbles—deplorables on one side, libtards on the other—and when political commentators speak seriously about the possibility of civil war or the end of democracy.

It’s tempting to think the point of democracy is to win elections for our side. But before you can have an election you need a citizenry that trusts the system and each other enough to abide by the results.

How do we build that trust? How do we manage the sacrifices that are imposed on the election’s losers? These are the sorts of questions that Danielle Allen asks in her brilliant book on citizenship, Talking to Strangers. I’ve discussed her notion of “political friendship” and how it might guide the education of citizens in an earlier blog post.  Political friendship is difficult to practice in the best of times; it’s especially challenging with a deeply polarized citizenry when even family members are breaking up over political differences. 

Students educated in this way would become agents of depolarization.  They would cultivate an open mind, and learn skills related to listening, deliberation, and compromise.  They would develop toleration of fellow citizens with different opinions.  To that end, they would resist an attitude of disgust or condescension toward people who think differently by cultivating “cognitive empathy,” the inclination and ability to understand fellow citizens who think (and vote) differently. And they would be advocates of forbearance toward those opponents in the exercise of power by democratic majorities.

And perhaps most importantly they would be encouraged to practice epistemic humility, by recognizing the shortcomings of their own cognition and the assumptions of their tribe. A way to remind ourselves of those shortcomings is to frequently ask, while engaged in politics: “Could I be wrong?”

A civics course ought to teach these dispositions, inclinations, skills and values.

Hence the stickers. 

Next: Should social justice be a goal of civics education?

A note sources

I didn’t come up with these idea on my own. Here are few of the authors who pointed the way:

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, on political friendship.

Hess and McAvoy, in The Political Classroom, guided me to Allen, and gave me the most important citizen question: “Could I be wrong?”

Moira Kelly’s talk, “Promoting Cognitive Empathy in a Polarized Society,” at the AISNE Annual Diversity Conference, Nov. 1, 2016, gave me the term “cognitive empathy.” She argued that it should be the first priority of citizenship education and that the Harkness Method (pioneered by my school, Phillips Exeter Academy) is the best way to teach it.

Jonathan Haight’s moral foundations theory has helped me to understand people on the other side of the political divide. See The Righteous Mind.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die identified the democratic norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance (Chapter 5).

As it happens, my bosses gave the faculty a book to read over summer that closely echoes these views. See Monica Guzman, I Never Thought of it That Way. The whole book is a brief for Cognitive Empathy and epistemic humility. “Say I don’t know when you don’t know,” for example, is a subheading in a chapter on why we should question our opinions (p. 148). Guzman is also an executive with the Braver Angels organization, which I first read about in the Atlantic in a 2017 issue devoted to depolarization, and have been following every since. Guzman often hosts the Braver Angels podcast.

John Keane’s global history, The Life and Death of Democracy, shows how fragile and ephemeral democratic systems have always been and why we should not take them for granted. 

This series: Part 1: Could I Be Wrong?  (civics education and epistemic humility); Part 2: Social Justice?  (Teaching citizenship to students with different values) and Part 3: Believe Science?  (curbing meritocratic hubris in tomorrow's leaders); Part 4: 8 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.

Friday, July 28, 2023

What the media missed in the UPS story

In the three days since the story broke, (see previous blogpost), neither the Times nor the Post has run a single opinion piece exploring the significance of the new Teamsters UPS contract.  They did run essays on Harvard University's admissions policy, Twitter's name change, online dating, how to quit your job, the aftermath of Dobbs, UFOs, "anti-Woke hysteria" in Tennessee and Florida schools, and of course a plethora of essays about Donald Trump. 

So what might they say about the new UPS contract? 

  • It averted what might have been the largest nation-wide strike in decades and illustrated that strikes and the threat of strikes is the most effective tactic that workers have for improving their working conditions.
  • It was a rare win for labor at a time when union membership is in decline but public approval of unions is on the rise. 
  • It pushed back against management's anti-worker tactics that have become increasingly common throughout the economy, including surveillance of employees, the hiring of underpaid subcontractors, and forced overtime. 

Most importantly, it represented a triumph of the reform wing of the labor movement, via Teamsters for a Democratic Union, over a sclerotic old guard--embodied in the person of Jimmy Hoffa Jr.--that has presided over the decline of unions in this country for most of the past 40 years.  The last UPS contract, negotiated by Hoffa in 2018, was imposed on the UPS workers in spite of a rank-and-file vote to reject it. This new contract reverses the most heinous element of that contract, creation of an inferior category of part time, low-paid drivers, a disastrous, solidarity-destroying provision that other old-guard unions have capitulated to.  

Under the new contract, part timers will make large gains, including a 48% pay increase over 5 years and the expansion of full-time positions for those who want them.  This runs counter to the practice of other national employers--like Starbucks--who brag about generous pay and benefits, but then limit workers hours so they are note eligible for benefits and get enough hours to make a living wage. 

These provisions and other elements of the UPS deal could be an inspiration to the 8,000 Starbucks workers who have voted to join a union but still have not been able to negotiate a first contract--if they manage to wade through the culture war coverage to find a story about it.

It's estimated that the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision might have a direct impact on 10,000-15,000 students. The UPS contract affects 340,000 workers.  There's no question that the Times and Post have published more articles on the former than the latter.  A lot more. And where elite college admissions are not likely to have much of a ripple effect on the vast majority of college students who attend non-competitive colleges and universities, a labor renaissance would have an impact on everyone in the US who works for a living.



Tuesday, July 25, 2023

News brownout of the UPS-Teamsters contract

This afternoon I opened three major national newspaper apps, starting with the Wall Street Journal, whose lead story was today's UPS contract agreement, which came just in time to avert a commerce-crippling strike.

The "liberal" New York Times and the Washington Post buried the story the far below the top of the front page.  Above perhaps the most significant labor story of the year, they posted articles about libraries banning books, immigration policy, legacy admissions at Harvard, Ron DeSantis's faltering presidential campaign, his feud with Bud Light over transgender issues, a story about a video depicting police violence, and ads for sales of precious metals in conservative media outlets.  In Jeff Bezo's Post, the UPS story appeared below the links to crossword puzzles and other games. 

(Forget about the Boston Globe, which led with no less than eight sports stories; UPS was nowhere to be found.)

Among the stories given more attention by the Times and Post than the fate of 340,000 American workers at a moment when conflict between a rising labor movement and anti-union corporations is on the rise, were also a few items about global warming and international conflicts.  But most of the stories deemed more newsworthy than a rare and perhaps historic win by labor focused on culture war and identity politics. Most striking to me was the elevation of two stories about admissions to elite colleges, something that will impact a tiny elite.

Of course the apps are constantly updating and re-arranging the order of the stories during the day, so a more reliable assessment might be what the print editions look like tomorrow. 

Update: The Print Editions.

In spite of Bezo's being perhaps the most successful contemporary union buster, the Post gave the UPS story the most prominent placement--top left front page, second only to a story about Putin (newspapers almost always put the lead story on the right side of the front page).  Does the editors of the Post have independence from their anti-labor owner?

The Times put the story inside, on the front page of the B section and led with the story about the elimination of legacy admissions at Harvard.

The Journal ended up burying the UPS story on B3, with a promo on page 1.

The Globe put a promo to the story at the bottom of page one and led with two big sports photos, a sports story, and Biden's asylum policy. 

I guess this is not surprising, since, according to one study, 28% of NYT reporters and editors attended Ivy league schools and 52% attended the 29 most elite universities. These folks are part of the tiny minority whose children will be effected by the the elimination of legacy admissions.  But most Americans won't be; only 0.4% of US undergraduates attend an Ivy League school. Meanwhile, 70% of nonunion “skilled and hourly workers” in the U.S. say they would consider joining a union if given the opportunity.

Thursday, July 6, 2023


A word I heard quite often last week at a conference of teachers on seminar style instruction: “harm.” As in: how can we make sure our students are not harmed by what happens during class discussions? As one participant put it “the texts we assign may do harm to some students and we might or might not be aware of it. We need to move this burden onto the educator. It’s our job to protect and deflect and make sure everybody is supported.”

Earlier in the week, we’d watched a video showing an “adventure playground” where “kids are encouraged to participate in healthy risk-taking.” Adults lurk around the edges removing hidden hazards, like rusty nails. But mostly they leave the kids alone, and refrain from interfering in risky behavior like climbing too far out on a thin tree limb 20 feet off the ground.  “Even when you feel uncomfortable, that should not inform your next move,” the adult says afterwards.  Children experience danger.  They are allowed to light fires and wield hammers and wallow in mud puddles. 

Adventure playgrounds were conceived by Margory Allen of Hurtwood (1897-1976) who said: “it is better to risk a broken leg than a broken spirit. A leg can always mend. A spirit may not.” 

It reminded me of my childhood, though no one was getting rid of rusty nails around the forts we built in the woods far away from the parental gaze. A trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot and to get the sneaker bits removed from your foot was a rite of passage in our neighborhood. We also rode bikes and cars without helmets and or seatbelts. One study found that kids today experience a total of 7 minutes per week of play unsupervised by adults.

How is it that as we parents of the post-missing-child-milk-carton era have made childhood increasingly safe, our children have become so increasingly anxious and sad?  Maybe Ms. Allen was right. Maybe danger is good for the spirit.


Adventure playground video.

Margory Allen bio.

Latest news about the bubble wrap generation.  Just before I posted, these two pieces showed up in news sources I consume.  

This one, in the Times on July 4, showed how high school theater teachers are being required to protect students from evil content in plays like "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Addams Family" ("It’s Getting Hard to Stage a School Play Without Political Drama" by Michael Paulson).

This article appeared on the front page of the Atlantic website on July 5: "The Gravitational Pull of Supervising Kids All the Time," by Stephanie H. Murray. It traces the rise of safetyism in parenting, which is closely related to safetyism at school and around the Harkness table.