Likely across the past few months, America’s election has worked its way into your classroom, if not your curriculum.
After a divisive election, can the classroom be one of America’s few productive contact zones for the meeting of politically diverse citizens? If news, social media, and our own neighborhoods have increasingly become politically segregated, might classes be a rare place for genuine exchange and understanding?
We have reason to be optimistic about this hope, yet it means instructors need a rich understanding of our students and ourselves as political animals. We might know the basic beliefs of differing political parties, but what are the cognitive roots of those values?
NYU’s social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides just-in-time insights at a time when students want to explore these divisions in our classes. His accessible work of pop social psychology The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012), has taken on a post-election urgency.
The book’s title reflects Haidt’s centrist approach: he recognizes legitimacy in both sides of ideas that divide us, while teaching about the equipment of our hard-wired, tribal minds that limit our perceptions across those sides. Regardless of where on the political spectrum we fall, Haidt feels we “Good People” should recognize how self-righteousness is the normal human condition; our minds are designed to unite us into teams, divide us against others, and blind us to the truths beyond our team. This traps us all in a particular “moral matrix.”
Haidt reminds us that we are far more emotional than rational: we react primarily by intuition, and only secondarily with strategic reasoning. His visual metaphor for our minds features our sense of reason as a tiny rider atop the willful elephant of our emotions. This explains why amid a political argument we have trouble persuading another person using reasons or evidence: we would do better to address the emotional elephant in the room.
Toward this end, Haidt locates five foundations of morality in the mind – five systems that orient our moral matrix. His studies find that humans have emotional concerns about
But just as we have varying food tastes, we’re drawn to the five in varying degrees. While both liberals and conservatives share common tastes for the first two, conservatives put more emphasis on the last three concerns than liberals.
While Haidt’s book does not focus specifically on the classroom setting, what the above means is we should be sensitive to the diversity of emotional sensibilities in our classrooms. We can be fairly confident in the effectiveness of our students responding to appeals for care and fairness. But only a portion of the class will respond to appeals to loyalty, respect, and sanctity. At the same time, neglecting this latter trio of values will unsettle the same population.
Haidt’s fresh perspective on the roots of our political minds both sets the groundwork for our discussions and helps us see why such conversations are so difficult. His ultimate solution to hyperpolarization is to recognize that the fault is not in politicians; it starts with ourselves.
One briefer alternative to reading Haidt’s 370-page book would be his 20-min TED interview “Can a Divided America Heal?,” taped just after the election in November 2016:
This wide-ranging discussion draws from the election insights about such topics as race, marriage, gender, immigration, empathy, disgust, and the purification of political parties, considering not only America but other countries as well. After all, political tribalism has intensified not just in America or other WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic); nearly all countries are grappling with disagreements over such issues as immigration, authoritarianism, diversity, openness, and unity.
Provided we can see around our righteous inclinations, the classroom’s small scale and lack of anonymity make it a promising space for change. While it may be challenging to facilitate a frank and productive discussion across our differing moral matrixes, the college classroom can be for students a starting point for civil conversations – maybe even our last best hope.