Educating and Polarization

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Should We Educate for Citizenship?

By Signe Josefsson

“We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians,
painters; we no longer have citizens.” 

– Rousseau

In the essay ”Discourse on the Sciences and Arts”, Rousseau contends that arts and sciences are, not only useless and redundant areas of study, but also vices that destroy virtuous conduct and makes us forget about what it means to be a citizen and a human being. Although this idea seems quite outdated in our modern world, Rousseau’s argumentation regarding the purpose of education can be worth bringing to life once again.  

It was after having heard a radio segment about the American election and the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the Swedish news program Godmorgon Världen that I started reflecting on this topic. What caught my attention was a discussion about a new discernible dimension of polarization that goes beyond the traditional definition. While polarization, up until recently, has meant that people disagree with each other and hold differing political opinions, the concept has now taken on a new meaning. Today, people do not only differ in their opinions, but also in their beliefs in what is true. We see a new form of polarization that is factual, where people operate in separate worlds of facts to higher and higher extent. And this development is not limited to the United States, although this is the clearest example. Examples can be found in democratic countries around the world. 

One question related to this theme is how our democracies can cope with a situation where people have completely different ways of perceiving, not only what is right, but also what is true. Does democracy require some sort of common ground among its citizens or can it function even if we live in increasingly different realities? In this article I bring up one aspect of this question, namely how increased polarization in democratic countries relates to citizenship formation and whether education should seek to form democratic citizens.  

It is easy to guess that we tend to be biased when faced with information that either confirms or negates our ideological standpoints. And this guess has even been scientifically proven. In an experiment described in the article, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning and Cognitive Reflection” by Dan M. Kahan, people were given tables showing the efficiency of a certain body lotion, and after that, tables showing numbers on gun control, global warming and other questions that are politically loaded. The test showed that people who knew very well how to read and interpret tables tended to read them wrong when the numbers did not fit with their political beliefs/ ideological views. 

An additional finding in this experiment was that this form of bias was not a consequence of “over-reliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning”. In other words, those who were good at math turned out to be even more affected by their ideological views. As I see it, this can be interpreted in two ways: either as an indication that more education does not help against bias (and consequently not against factual polarization) or as an indication that the content in education must change for people to develop their capacity for critical thinking.  

In the book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha C. Nussbaum states that citizens do not get to fully develop their citizenship abilities due to our current education model: one that educates for profit. This model encourages training of specific skills and seeks to profit from students’ capabilities in the future. Because of this, Nussbaum argues, subjects such as technology and economics have been overprioritized while arts and humanities have been downgraded. What Nussbaum advocates instead is a model that educates for citizenship. She wants to see a new model of education with an increased focus on arts and humanities, where the goal is to promote democratic citizenship through developing desirable citizenship abilities. Among those, a critical mindset. In a speech held at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum stated that: “Education must be focused on developing human capabilities to be active in citizenship, which takes the ability to argue and imagine, but also the capability to live a meaningful life (…) We need to ask ourselves – what capabilities does a good education system promote?”

Melina Duarte, Doctor of Philosophy at the Arctic University of Norway, is partly critical to Nussbaum. In her view, presented in the article ”Educating Citizens for Humanism: Nussbaum and the Education Crisis”, it is problematic to assume that arts and humanities would promote the development of democratic citizenship more than any other subject. She says that “it is not because one has read Plato that we will defend the values of Athenian democracy” and claims that good courses in sciences could do the same. She brings up physics as an example of a subject that endorses critical thinking, imagination and the ability to understand part-whole relationships. 

Additional arguments against educating for citizenship are voiced in Dean Garratt´s article, “Democratic Citizenship in the Curriculum: some problems and possibilities”. His main critique of a model that puts citizenship within the education model consists in the risk of applying an ideological and unneutral perspective on education. He also fears that a curriculum that implements citizenship would implicitly strive for unity rather than encouraging plurality and dialogue. 

So, should the heart of education consist in cultivating democratic citizenship? As I see it, this question has both a moral philosophical and a more empirical dimension to it. The latter has to do with whether it is possible to create more democratic citizens through education. And if so, how this should be done – through an increased focus on certain subjects like arts and humanities or in some other way? The moral dimension has to do with (1) whether it is morally right to try to influence students in a way that clearly promotes one ideology over another on topics which are in actuality still highly debated and (2) who is going to be responsible for deciding what teaching is the best at promoting democratic citizenship. If we were to change things within the education system in order to promote democratic citizenship, I think we must be careful that these measures are not counterproductive, so that measures against polarization do not end up enlarging the gap between people. In a world that is getting increasingly polarized, I believe that the best thing our schools could do for democracy is to be an inclusive place that encourages children to respect and listen to each other, in a world where adults refuse. 

Concluding this discussion, I think it is important to remember that polarization is a complex phenomenon, and not necessarily something bad. In the 1960s Herbert Tingsten predicted that democracy would die, not because of increased polarization, but because of the opposite reason: increased approximation of parties. Constant compromise would lead to an approximation of parties towards the middle. Consequently, this would cause a loss in public interest and commitment, and eventually lead to the death of ideologies. So even if very high levels of polarization among citizens can be problematic, competing ideologies and thus also some level of polarization, should always exist for the political debate to stay alive and for our democracies to thrive.

By Signe Josefsson

Illustration: Emelie Isaksen

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