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September 28, 2018+Annafi Wahed
+Teaching+Viewpoint Diversity

Using The Flip Side in the Classroom

In today’s hyper-partisan world, it’s a small comfort to know that Democrats and Republicans at least agree about their disagreements. In a recent survey, 81% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 76% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said Republican and Democratic voters cannot agree on basic facts of issues. Their viewpoint was validated by a new poll showing Democrats and Republicans do indeed have wildly divergent views on core democratic issues.

As has been written so eloquently written by Jonathan Haidt and many others, the problem of echo chambers seems particularly acute on college campuses — the very institutions responsible for cultivating our country’s next generation of leaders.

In another recent survey, 61% of Americans said the higher education system in the United States is going in the wrong direction. Of those, 75% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats cited “too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive” as one of the reasons.

So how do we fix this? One of the many factors contributing to the increasing polarization is our bifurcated media environment. According to the Pew Research Center, “when it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals.”

Enter The Flip Side: a daily digest of the best op-eds and analyses from liberal and conservative media. Our politically-diverse team curates and presents the most prevalent viewpoints from the left and the right side-by-side without further commentary — so as to let our readers make their own judgments.

It takes only a minute to subscribe, and the daily is designed to take roughly 5 minutes to work through — making it an easy add to any course curriculum (if looking for diverse perspectives on just one particular issue, we also have an archive). Yet instructors can get a lot of utility out of this relatively low-lift read. Here’s how:

Side-by-Side Presentation

Beyond critical thinking skills and key disciplinary knowledge, it is imperative that students today are taught media literacy. Here are just some types and examples of media bias:

  1. Tone / word choice a. Obama to replace U.S. Attorneys b. Trump team ousts Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys
  2. Using one data point / anecdote to invoke emotion: a. From Refugee Camp, Young Somali Lands Spot at Princeton b. ‘Refugee’ Spared Prison After Strangling, Sexually Assaulting Woman in Maidstone, Kent
  3. Using only data that fits a certain narrative: a. The ridiculous number of guns owned by Americans, in one chart b. In other countries, bombings, mass stabbings, and car attacks frequently kill more people than even the deadliest mass shootings in the United States
  4. Focusing on only one side of the story: a. HHS’s New Rule Allows Health Care Workers to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People and Abortion Seekers b. Trump to Protect Medical Conscience
  5. Bias by omission: a. Louis Farrakhan’s Anti-Semitism and the Silence of the Left

While it’s certainly possible to identify these distortions when reading the stories independently, notice that they come into much sharper relief when placed side-by-side with an ideological counterpoint.

Beyond just demonstrating the ubiquity and variations of bias, this kind of juxtaposition can help open up a conversation of what a multi-faceted, nuanced presentation of the case might look like.

Getting the Most from Diverse Viewpoints

However, it is not enough to simply expose people to the views of people who think differently than they do. Indeed, research has shown that, under the wrong circumstances, people can even grow more partisan when confronted with alternative narratives of events or phenomenon.

Two factors are critical:

First, it is important that people be exposed to the best (most well thought-out, compelling, insightful, reasonable) takes from “the other side,” rather than to low-quality or extreme arguments which are easy to dismiss, add little to one’s understanding of the world — and can cause one to hold the other side in even lower esteem.

At The Flip Side, we rise to this challenge in the following ways: our editorial team includes staunch conservatives, social-justice oriented progressives, and everything in between (these “in-betweeners” are actually crucial, but that’s another story). Each of us feels a stake in best-representing “our own” side – however, all of us are also committed to helping “steel man” those whose perspectives vary sharply from our own.

Yet even if presented with high-quality content, in order to reap the (epistemological and civic) benefits of viewpoint diversity, students must also be guided in how to understand and engage — productively and in good-faith — with perspectives they are strongly predisposed to disagree with. Classrooms are a fantastic setting to encourage this mindset, and to cultivate the required skills to effectively pull it off.

That is, while of great value to any concerned citizen hoping to better understand those who think differently than they do, The Flip Side may be even more effective in a pedagogical context than it is to the general public.

As a new crop of students begin their academic journey, let’s, yes, create a safe and nurturing environment — but let’s also create room for discomfort. Let’s acknowledge that growing pains are a necessary part of learning. Let’s not be afraid to point out that there is indeed a flip side to most viewpoints. While both perspectives may not, in any particular instance, be equally true — there is generally something to be gained from coming to understand and engage with the “other.” Those who think differently from ourselves are rarely 100% wrong, ignorant, unreasonable, etc.

It is only by embracing viewpoint diversity that we can hope to give the next generation of leaders the full truth, and create a shared reality based on all the facts.


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