The United States has seen great increases in how many of us take part in higher education. The percent of Americans who’ve completed four years or more of college has grown nearly sevenfold just since 1940. Illiteracy rates have plummeted. We have even seen consistent growth in Americans’ average IQ, the so-called “Flynn Effect” from the 1930s through the early 21st century. In addition, people have access to information on a scale hitherto unknown in human history, available in the palm of their hand, whenever and wherever they’d like.
Yet levels of political and civic ignorance have remained astonishingly stable since the 1930s (when mass survey research really kicked off). We also see increasing governmental dysfunction. Increased political and cultural polarization. A general breakdown in civil society and civil discourse. Growing distrust in major social institutions – with particularly pronounced polarization around universities, expertise, and the media. We see declining trust in one another. People are increasingly reluctant to marry, date, or even befriend or live next to those who hold different socio-political views from themselves.
This correlation — between increased education, intelligence, or availability of information with increased social dysfunction — would have been virtually inconceivable to our Enlightenment-era forebearers. However, it shouldn’t be surprising to us.
As I demonstrate in a new essay for Inside Higher Ed, abundant research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests that people with high levels of intellectual acumen may actually be more prone to many cognitive distortions than most others – and education seems to exacerbate rather than ameliorate these tendencies.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are a few practical steps universities could take to help be part of the solution to America’s civic crises:
Teach Students to Move Beyond Criticism
Students are taught to really hone their critical capacities at university – but what of their affirmative ones? Put another way, there is a big focus on identifying problems, criticizing, problematizing, deconstructing, highlighting differences, etc. – but much less on coming up with practical solutions, or explaining what works, what is good (and why), or acknowledging what the people we engage are right about, or building consensus through the things we share in common. These are not skills that are prioritized in higher education today. To our detriment.
Let me be clear: refining people’s affirmative capacities is not about undermining activism or legitimizing the status quo. In fact, it is absolutely essential for effective social change that we are able to understand what works, how it works, and why it works. Otherwise efforts can be wasted and interventions could end up doing more harm than good. Understanding where to push, how to push and under which circumstances to push – you don’t get there just by looking at what’s wrong with the prevailing order; you also have to look at which aspects of it are good and worth preserving, because it usually came into being and persists for a reason. We should understand those reasons before we commit to tearing things down.
Moreover, we know that building consensus around some positive alternative is an essential ingredient for convincing people to support social change: people tend to be willing to tolerate the status quo, even one they really dislike, unless and until they have some other viable and desirable option to rally behind instead. Put another way: one can criticize the prevailing order all day, everyday — and it will be largely in vain absent a workable countermodel to strive towards.
Prioritize Civic Education and Engagement
As things stand, Americans tend to possess very little knowledge about the political candidates or issues they are voting on – or even a rudimentary understanding of civic institutions and processes — regardless of their education.
For instance, most who graduate college cannot speak in meaningful detail about the different roles and responsibilities, powers and limitations, of the different branches of government, or the different levels of government (federal, state, local). They have no idea, specifically, how a bill gets passed, how to get an initiative on the ballot, how to run for office, or how to build a grassroots movement around a cause – and leverage that movement into meaningful cultural or institutional changes.
Lack of awareness about what elected officials do, what their capabilities are, and how they exercise their influence leads to unrealistic expectations about what politicians can accomplish. On the one hand we see frustration, cynicism and despair when politicians are unable to deliver radical change. And on the other hand, political races take on an apocalyptic character because we believe that if races don’t go the way we hope, elected officials will somehow lay waste to all that we hold dear.
At the same time as they overestimate the effect of national representatives, we largely ignore state and local elections. Few know who their state representatives are, or even their governors, and have even less knowledge about local and municipal government. The irony of course is that in many respects, the state and local elections, ballot initiatives, etc. are highly consequential – and in fact often matter more to shaping one’s day-to-day lives than the national races. Indeed, state and local governments can, and often do, act as bulwark against policies that are passed on the national level.
In a greater irony, precisely as a result of their smaller scale, one’s vote matters a lot more for these kinds of races, as does one’s donations or activism. One stands a much better chance of being able to actually win office and affect change in their communities if they were to run in these races, or push for ballot initiatives, etc. at the state or local level.
In short, it’s not a problem that universities provoke students towards social justice or social activism. The problem is that we get them all amped up on making a difference without providing them with the practical knowledge or skills to realize those aspirations. This is how you end up with expressive politics and virtue signaling campaigns on the one hand, and widespread cynicism about the state of society on the other – because virtually everyone thinks that change is absolutely necessary, but also completely untenable. This is how you end up with the ideological fundamentalism that pervades so many educated people today.
When you are trying to solve practical problems, with actual people, in the real world, there is no room for this kind of nonsense. You have to build coalitions with people who hold different values and interests from you — by emphasizing superordinate goals or identities. You often need to make compromises, or adjust your aims, methods or priorities in light of the circumstances on the ground when you’re engaged in practical politics. As Van Jones put it:
“The whole liberal culture has curdled into something it wasn’t supposed to be. How am I supposed to close prisons with no Republicans yet Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, Supreme Court and two-thirds of the state legislatures? That’s a very basic question that people who tell me I shouldn’t be working with Newt Gingrich can never answer. I’ve never met anyone who said ‘Van, please, please, get my loved one home but don’t work with any Republicans.’’’
Teach All Students About Biases, Cognitive Distortions and Methods to Mitigate Them
We should educate all students about things like cognitive biases, motivated reasoning, identity-based reasoning, and the like – and how to engage constructively across lines of difference.
By this I do not mean what often passes for diversity training — which typically fails to achieve its stated purpose, and in fact often increases animosity or resentment. Instead, if students are made to understand that the same traits that predispose them towards success at many academic tasks also make them more vulnerable to certain cognitive distortions – and that the process of education itself can actually exacerbate these tendencies further – they can be more aware, and more careful in their thinking and interactions.
The success of approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy shows that when people are sensitized to the different ways their thinking can go awry, when they are given the tools to identify various cognitive distortions, and practical strategies and techniques to mitigate them – they can improve their thinking and adjust their behaviors.
Of course, it’s not perfect. We’re never going to be able to completely debias ourselves (I’m not even sure what that would mean!). But we can get to a place where, when confronted with something or someone that poses a profound challenge to our identity, preferences or beliefs – rather than being led by our initial reaction, we can take a step back, and evaluate the situation, and maybe even change our approach or adjust our position, in a way that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We can keep the conversation going, and maybe grow and learn something about ourselves or the world in the process.
This is a skill that would not only be useful for university contexts, but also on the job, in interpersonal relationships, and of course, in the broader civil society.
By better equipping students to understand how their own thinking can go awry, by imbuing students with greater civic knowledge,
by building out their affirmative capacities alongside their critical capacities, universities can help improve America’s political culture and the vitality of our social institutions – they can undermine tribalism, obviate the appeal of toxic forms of populism, and better live up to their founding aspirations.
Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from a talk given at the conference “Polarization and Disagreement: Combatting America’s Civic Crisis” — hosted by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, in partnership with the Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The full video of the talk and Q&A is available below:
Musa also sat down with Duncan Moench for a follow-up interview on ASU SCETL’s podcast, “Keeping It Civil” — where they discussed identity, inequality, race and Trump. Available here:
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and Managing Editor at Heterodox Academy.
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