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.

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