Saturday, September 16, 2023

11 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 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.  Motivated reasoning, for example, compels us to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and dispute information that contradicts them.  Lest they think their world-class education will inoculate them against these biases, we read about studies that show that more education just makes people better at using their "critical thinking" skills to dispute information they don't like and shoring up their world view. 

3. I try to balance the reading list across the political spectrum and make sure to pick well-argued essays from points of view they won'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.  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 expose them 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 suggest 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. It's hard to view either of the two parties or any social justice movement as beyond criticism. 

6. We read about how the contemporary media environment has created information bubbles with different, flawed views of reality. 

7. 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. 

8. We read about the erosion of the political norm of "mutual toleration."  I hope they come away seeing that treating those who disagree with you as either stupid or evil is not conducive to building social harmony or fostering the compromises that are necessary if we want to make any progress toward solving complicated social problems.   

9. I try to focus half the course on policy issues, which show 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.

10. I have them attend a meeting of the Exeter Board of Selectmen to expose them to local politics. Culture wars are trickling down to the local level, but town politics--at least in Exeter--still offer an example of more collaborative, non-partisan governance than we see at the national level.

11. I’ve used role playing, especially in the law course I used to teach, where students re-enacted  Supreme Court oral arguments, 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: 11 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.