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How the American Education System Foments Partisan Anger, and How to Fix it

The lack of viewpoint diversity in education reduces empathy – the capacity to identify with others – and thus foments partisan anger.  Minor adjustments to existing curricula will increase empathy and reduce divisiveness.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”  According to Merriam-Webster empathy is:

  • 1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
  • 2:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this

Note the importance to empathy of being  Imaginative; of having or showing an ability to think of new and interesting ideas : having or showing imagination : of or relating to imagination.”  In other words, a fertile imagination is a prerequisite for empathy.

Imagination is “the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not seen or experienced; the ability to think of new things; something that only exists or happens in your mind.”  The full definition of Imagination is helpful (emphasis added):

  • 1:  the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
  • 2a :  creative ability b :  ability to confront and deal with a problem :  resourcefulness <use your imagination and get us out of here> c :  the thinking or active mind :  interest <stories that fired the imagination>
  • 3a :  a creation of the mind; especially :  an idealized or poetic creation b :  fanciful or empty assumption

Empathy, then, is the ability to imagine what it is like to be somebody else; to put yourself in their shoes.

What is Learning?

Learning is the process of assimilating into our intuitive elephant information, ideas, concepts, thinking processes, etc., – collectively known as “knowledge” – that originate outside of it.

Learning happens through repeated and prolonged exposure to knowledge from outside of our “selves” that inculcates it into our “selves” such that it becomes a natural and inherent part of our intuitive reactions to the things we see around us, and thus also of our conscious reasoning that follows. See, for example, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

The effect of learning is to expand, enhance, and refine the knowledge – the tools immediately at hand to our intuitive elephants and our rational riders – with which we assess and respond to the information collected by our senses.  Learning expands the breadth and the depth of our capacities to perceive, understand, and articulate the world external to our “selves.”  It increases “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality” and “the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not seen or experienced; the ability to think of new things.”

Increased knowledge results in increased power of imagination.    

The more we learn about human nature in particular – the more knowledge we assimilate into our “selves” about how and why humans think, say, and do the things we do – the better able we are to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience things outside of ourselves, including the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.   Increasing our knowledge of human nature increases our ability to imagine what it’s like walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, including, and especially, people who disagree with us think and act the way they do.

Increased knowledge about human nature results in increased empathy.        

Social knowledge, imagination, and empathy are delimited by at least two fundamental dimensions. 

The Dimensions of Imagination and Empathy

The first dimension is cognitive style. “The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization” by Arthur Herman demonstrates rather conclusively that there are at least two major styles of human cognition; two different ways in which our elephants connect the dots of the bits and bytes of data they receive. The two main cognitive styles have been described by many different thinkers in many different ways, but in the end they’re all talking about the same two basic cognitive styles. The two cognitive styles are captured in the words used by the thinkers who have described them:

Cognitive style 1) Platonic, idealistic, reason-based, WEIRD, rational, technical knowledge, unconstrained, trees

Cognitive style 2) Aristotelian, empiricist, experience-based, holistic, intuitionist, practical knowledge, constrained, forest

In one sense these two cognitive styles mark the opposite ends of a spectrum. Some people are closer to one end than the other, but most people are somewhere in the middle. Few people are at an extreme end.

But in another sense they overlap. Type two thinkers tend to also be type one thinkers, but type one thinkers tend NOT to be type two thinkers. It’s not so much a situation of Yin vs Yang, and more like a situation of Yin vs Yin/Yang.

The second dimension is moral foundations. “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt also demonstrates conclusively that evolution has embedded in the human psyche at least six psychological mechanisms of social perception, subconscious intuitive understanding, and conscious rational reasoning.

These, too, can be thought of as existing along a spectrum, with the individualizing foundations of care, fairness, and liberty at one end and the binding foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity at the other.

But here again the situation is less like Yin vs Yang and more like Yin vs Yin/Yang. There’s no liberal foundation that’s not also a conservative foundation, but about half the conservative foundations are external to the liberal moral matrix. The centuries-old contest between left and right is less like a tug of war between individualizing and binding and more like Flatland-Spaceland style contest between pure individualizing and a balance of Individualizing/Binding.

How Viewpoints Differ

Viewpoints differ in the degree to which they employ the two cognitive styles and the six moral foundations.  Moral foundations and cognitive styles can be thought of as the X and Y axes of a two-dimensional depiction of moral/ideological space.  

Conservatism is highest in cognitive style two, and it employs all of the moral foundations in relatively equal balance. 

Liberalism leans more strongly toward cognitive style one and the individualizing foundations of care, fairness, and liberty.  That said, within liberalism (and conservatism too) there’s a wide range of thinkers.  Notable are liberals with a strong dose of cognitive style two, including:

Illiberalism is nearly pure cognitive style one in combination with a nearly pure one-foundation moral matrix. It is characterized by the idealized Platonic WEIRD rational unconstrained vision of the “new man” and the “good society” – what Rousseau called the “General Will” – with which all right-thinking people agree, and which is achievable if only the right social constructs were emplaced. Anyone who does not agree is clearly not right-thinking, therefore has no legitimate role in public discourse, and further should be excluded from it. This thinking was evident behind The Terror of the French Revolution and is evident today in milder form behind the anti-free speech campus protesters of today. The thinking is the same, only the methods have changed in accordance with the social mores of the time.

What’s the point of all this?

Proper treatment of a disease requires proper diagnosis of its root cause(s). If we really want to address the lack of viewpoint diversity and the “Coming Apart” then we have to attack it at its source. The War On Partisanship is a multi-front war.

Heterodox academy is doing battle on only one of those fronts. I applaud and encourage the efforts of Heterodox Academy. It is the cavalry coming to the rescue of the already badly besieged fort of higher education.

But there are other forts, equally besieged, that are getting little or no such help. And those forts are closer to the front lines, closer to the root causes of “The Yale Problem.”  Heterodox Academy’s aim of increasing viewpoint diversity in higher education strikes me as treating the symptoms but not the disease. It seems palliative rather than curative, when what we really need are measures that are preventive. We need to send additional cavalry to the other forts.

It is not true that The Yale Problem begins in High School.  It actually begins in kindergarten and continues through our childrens’ entire education and becomes ever more exacerbated as they move up through the grades from Kindergarten to Middle School to High School to University.  

The ENTIRE education system in America from kindergarten onward, and arguably in all of western culture, is managed and operated for all practical purposes by liberals and illiberals alone.  The same is true, again for all practical purposes, with a few notable exceptions, of the entertainment and news systems in America and Western culture.

Examples of over emphasis on cognitive style one and the individualizing foundations at the expense of cognitive style two and the binding foundations at all levels of American education are abundant and ever increasing.  Organizations like Heterodox Academy and FIRE are building an ever growing library of them.    

The American education system is essentially culturally embedded lifelong elephant training in only one cognitive style and only one moral matrix. It consists almost entirely of reinforcing cognitive style one and sacralizing the liberal moral matrix, including the values and virtues that follow from that combination, and eschewing cognitive style two and demonizing the conservative matrix and the values and virtues that follow from that combination.

In short: The American education system restricts rather than expands our childrens’ cognitive capabilities, narrows rather than expands their social imaginations, and reduces rather than enlarges their capacity for empathy and understanding. 

Education in America fails most miserably at arguably the single most important reason for its very existence.

THAT is what must be reversed if the goal of viewpoint diversity – and through it ACTUAL tolerance, inclusiveness, and empathy toward others – is to be realized.

Relatively minor adjustments to current curricula will achieve that goal.

How to Improve Empathy, and Thus Reduce Partisan Divisiveness

Heterodox academy is a good start. But what’s also needed is heterodox kindergarten, elementary, and middle schools, and heterodox entertainment and news as well.

Another great suggestion along the same lines is here: The Liberal Arts & the Limits of Social Psychology

Heterodox academy should expand its efforts beyond higher education to include K-12 education as well. Curricula from civics to history to literature to economics need to be adjusted to reflect a balanced approach of BOTH cognitive styles and the values and virtues of ALL of the moral foundations.

Only then will Western culture begin to become truly heterodox, and truly inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate toward all, begin to change away from the exclusive, intolerant, hard hearted hostile climate of anger and even violence it has become toward any and all who don’t think liberal thoughts and/or toe the politically correct liberal line.




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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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