(First in a series. See also: Social Justice? Believe Science? 11 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens)
Sometimes I give my students a sticker with the phrase “I could be wrong.” Here’s why.
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.
Perhaps, but more than that, 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 who embraced political friendship would become agents of depolarization. They would cultivate open minds, 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.
A note on sources
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 ever since. Guzman was a host of 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: 11 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.