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Foundations, Recommendations

Shrinking the Political Divide, Part 1: Education



The political divide can never be completely eliminated, nor should it be. It is good and healthy for us to have different ideas and strong debate. But if we believe the divide is so wide and so polarizing that it is unhealthy then we should think about taking some steps that might shrink it, and possibly increase civility.

I propose that we can do that through education, in at least two places; 1) the K-12 curriculum, and 2) in the things politicians say. I’ll address education in this post and politicians in another.

Much of the reason for the nasty things that are said back and forth across the political aisle is that we do not understand each other. An effect of the misunderstanding is that much of our political and moral discussion is based on presuppositions about each other and our beliefs that are just plain wrong. And because of those false presuppositions we draw conclusions about each other, and about what drives the other side to say and do the things it does, that are also wrong. We characterize each other as something we’re not, and then we use that mischaracterization as “evidence” as to why the other side is wrong, and even evil, or racist, or unpatriotic.

We demonize that which we do not understand.  If we can increase understanding then we can decrease the demonization, and the political divide.

We have the knowledge and understanding to significantly reduce this problem. We shoud use it. Lifting the veil of misunderstanding would go a long way toward improving our ability to get along, and maybe even to “compromise.”

It wouldn’t be a silver bullet. It wouldn’t solve all of our problems. It wouldn’t eliminate the political and moral divide, but I submit that if we could do it, then the wall that separates us would not be quite so high or quite so strong.

The presuppositions that are wrong have to do with our understanding of human nature; of how the mind really works, and of how and why we act and relate with each other the way we do. These are myths that must be busted if there is to be any real opportunity to reduce the animosity across the political aisle.

Here are two of the myths and their associated realities:

Myth #1: Most of our thoughts, words, and actions are motivated by conscious reason.
Reality #1: Ninety-nine percent of what we think and say and do is driven by our subconscious “gut feel.”

Myth #2: Morality is about caring for individuals, and preventing harm from coming to individuals.
Reality #2: It’s so much more than that.

And yet, our entire education system is predicated largely on reinfocing these myths, especially the second one. We need to change that. We need to show our kids the entire spectrum of human behavior and not just a piece of it. If they had a better grasp of what makes us who we are, and why we do the things we do, then they might make better choices as adults, and as politicians.

Think about it. Think about the things our kids learn in school. Think about the reading materials they’re given and the principles that are embedded in their classes in history, social studies, English, and even health. It is overwhelmingly about care. And the kind of “care” that is talked about is centered on the individual. It’s all about removing any and all forms of “oppression,” and maximizing the ability of the individual to exercise “free will.” It’s all about the philosophy of “no harm” (to the individual) “no foul;” as long as my behavior does not directly affect another individual, then I’m free to do as I please. 

But that’s only a fraction of the story of human nature. It’s not just about the individual.   It’s also about working together in cooperative groups for the mutual benefit of all members, and the innate qualities of human nature that allow us to do that.  There’s so much more to what makes us tick than care, and “no harm, no foul.”  And it is the lack of understanding about those additional qualities which is at the root of the political divide. 

Don’t you think that if our kids knew the whole story, that if the veil of misunderstanding could be lifted even a little bit, then there’d be a little bit more civility, a little better understanding of how to get along, and a little more willingness to compromise in politics? 

In order to survive and to thrive as a species we humans have developed several “tricks” we use to help us cooperate in large groups.  Our instinctual “gut feel,” is driven in large part by a small number of psychological predispositions that are part of our psyche, placed there either by evolution or by God, whichever you believe, specifically for the purpose of helping us to survive, and to thrive, as a species by forming into groups for our mutual benefit. These predispositions contribute to our gut feelings of like and dislike, our tendency to approach or avoid, and even to fight or flee the things we encounter in our every-day lives, including, and especially, issues of politics and morality. 

The first of them is care/harm.  It is our natural tendency to look out for one another and to protect each other from sickness and injury.  The second is proportionality/cheating.  It is, in short, our sense of “fairness.”  The third is loyalty/betrayal.  It is our sense, and our expectation of others, to be true to the group(s) we belong to, and its beliefs, and not to undermine them.  The fourth is authority/subversion.  It is our sense of respect for some sort of social order, without which the group descends into anarchy and chaos.  The fifth is sanctity/degradation.  It is our sense of “clean living,” and the respect and attention to physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual well being that is required for happy, healthy lives.  It is important to note here, I think, that this does not mean, or require, religion.  Secular, non religious people can have this sense too.  The sixth is liberty/oppression.  Even though humans are hierarchical in nature, and thus our innate sense of authority/subversion, we also have a sense of autonomy of the individual, and we tend to “gang up” to resist authority or the powerful when we feel that the autonomy of our group or of individuals is being threatened. (1)

All of these predispositions, taken together, are what drive us as individual humans and in our relationships with one another. They are the tools we use to bind ourselves together into groups for the mutual benefit of everyone in the group.  All of them, taken together, are the prerequisites for a healthy, thriving society populated by healthy, thriving individuals.

In other words, they are the basis of morality, rightly understood.

Morality is our sense of right and wrong. It is the sets of behaviors that we, as a society and as individuals, consider to be acceptable and unacceptable. It is our collection of notions about how we should relate to one another.

Morality is reflected in practically everything we do. Politics is morality formalized into law. History is about morality. Literature is about morality. Morality is inherent to practically every moment of our lives.

Because morality is tied up in everything, our kids receive messages about it, about right and wrong, about what it is to be human, about how to get along with one another, and about being a member of society, in our schools every day, in practically every subject in the classroom. The messages are in their social studies classes, their history classes, their health classes, and their English classes. They’re in the stories that are read to our kids when they’re little, they’re in the materials our kids are given to read and to learn as they get older, they’re in the questions our kids have to answer, and they’re in the essays they have to write. The messages are not always obvious, they’re often subtle, “between the lines,” subliminal, in a way. But they’re there. Morality permeates everything. It defines practially every aspect of human existence. It is as much of our every-day lives as are eating and sleeping.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can’t, or we shouldn’t, teach morality in schools. Because we already do, every single day. It is unavoidable. It is literally impossible not to.

That being the case, then I submit that we may as well give our kids the whole story, and not just part of it, as we currently do, so that they can 1) have the veil of misunderstanding lifted from their eyes, and see that the thoughts and beliefs of folks who think differently from the way they do are actually grounded in something real, and not just in ignorance or some sort of phobia, and 2) understand and articulate their own beliefs in the same way, understanding where they come from and why they exist in the form that they do.

And if we do want our kids to make their own decisions about what is right and wrong, and what is good for society and what isn’t, and who they should vote for and who they shouldn’t, then don’t you think we owe it to them to give them ALL the facts? Don’t you think we should tell them the whole story of human nature? Don’t you think they should be able to see and to actually understand, both political viewpoints (their own, and somebody else’s)? Don’t you think that they should have some grasp of all of the psychological dispositions innate to all of us, and not just one or two of them? Don’t you think that they should understand, based on those things, why each side believes the things it does, and that those things are real, and meaningful?

Don’t you think it’s the responsible thing to do? Don’t you think we owe it to our kids to actually give them the tools they need in order to understand themselves and each other? Don’t you think that as the adults, the grownups, the responsible parties in our kids’ lives, we are derelict in our duties of we don’t?

Well, right now we don’t. Not at all. Not even close. Right now, public education in this country pretty much reinforces only one type of morality; the type that says “no harm, no foul;” the type that is based almost entirely on “care,” and on the individual. That morality has a practical monopolistic hold on the material that is presented to our kids in school. It makes practically no effort to tell any other story. It does almost nothing to lift the veil of misunderstanding from our kids’ eyes. On the contrary, it does a better job of pulling it down tighter.

Beyond the usual platitudes about Democrats and Republicans, or about liberals and conservatives, are our kids even aware, in a meaningful way, of the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the two major visions of human nature, and the historical ramifications of those visions? Are our kids even aware that there are two kinds of liberty (positive and negative) and that each one follows from a different set of moral foundations; from a different vision? Do they have any inkling that, similarly, there are different understandings of the words equality, and justice, and even the role of government, and that those too follow from different sets of moral foundations? Do they know that these different connotations of liberty, equality, justice, and the role of government lead to two very different visions about how society can, or should, be structured? Do they know what happened in human history when those different visions have actually been tried? Do they know which of those visions this country was founded on?

No, they don’t know these things. They never see them. They’re never introduced to them.

Why? Because of the choices we make about their curriculum. We have ample opportunity to introduce our kids to these basic facts of human life and history throughout their K-12 careers, but we choose not to do it. Their history classes don’t tell them, their required class in government doesn’t tell them, their health class doesn’t tell them, their social studies classes, or whatever passes for rudimentary psychology classes, don’t tell them, nothing does.

Think back about the books your kids came home with as they went through the public education system. Or, if you have kids now, watch carefully as they grow up. Decide for yourself which moral foundations are reinforced, and which are ignored and sometimes even ridiculed. They come home with books and stories about slavery and the Underground Railroad. They come home thinking the 3/5 compromise was racist. They come home thinking the Founders were hypocrites, and racists themselves, because some of them owned slaves. They come home with stories about Japanese internment camps, and the Holocaust. It’s all about “care,” for the individual and oppression by “the man.”

But where are the stories about the differences between positive and negative liberty? Where are the stories about the difference between justice, and social justice? Where are the stories that tell the difference between equality under the law and equality of outcome? Where are the stories that show which of each of these principles this country was founded on, and why? They’re not there. They don’t exist. Our kids never hear them.

How in the world can we ever expect our kids to make informed decisions if we never inform them?

If we want our kids to be tolerant, if we want them to be inclusive, if we want to them to be fair, then we need to make sure our they actually understand all points of view; where they come from, why people believe in them, and their consequences throughout history Our kids need to realize that the reasons people believe differently than they do is not because those people are ignorant, or backward, or superstitious, but that the reasons are founded on something real.   

For generations the entire K-12 education system has reinforced a partial vision of human nature, and based on that partial view, offered a partial, tilted understanding of history.  Our kids rely on that partial vision as the basis for their political and moral priorities, and the way they relate with one another as adults.  Is it any wonder, then, that the political divide is so stark?
(1)  www.moralfoundations.org

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