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Mindsets That Sabotage Our Education: (2) Partisan Suspicion


The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5th, 1692    by T.H. Matteson -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5th, 1692 by T.H. Matteson -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

As a high school teacher with 6 years in the classroom, I have observed at least four common mindsets that prevent people from learning and growing. In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the mindset that education is simply about the acquisition of information, and should never challenge our assumptions or beliefs in certain areas. In this post, I will discuss the second mindset that can sabotage our education -- the mindset of partisanship and suspicion. I will also offer some suggestions for how to change your thinking and grow.

"Why should I listen to anything they have to say?"

Whether we realize it or not, we all have a tendency to dismiss nearly everything a person says or teaches, if that person is a member of a group whose beliefs we disagree with. This habit is perhaps most noticeable in politics, but it is not just political junkies who have this mindset. It's all of us. Our default response is to immediately reject any opinion or claim from someone who is of an opposing moral, religious, or philosophical group, without even evaluating it first.

Why do we do this? Because we naturally distrust people we disagree with -- we always suspect they have some ulterior motive. We hear what they are saying (we don't actually listen), but we think we know what they "really mean," and we don't like it.

In his article, "The Danger of 'What This Really Means'," Derek Rishmawy explains why this mindset is harmful:

During online debate and interaction with those whom we disagree, we often default to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”... For those happily unaware of what that phrase means, it's essentially a way of interpreting and reading everything with a certain level of skepticism, concerned to uncover the real, hidden motives behind any argument, statement, or position. It rejects the face-value reading, because “what this really means” is probably something else, mostly an attempt [to] maintain hidden relations of power or control...
When we are constantly straining to “see through” the arguments of our neighbors, we run the risk of never actually seeing them. If we're constantly tuning our ears to the background hum of power-plays and manipulation, we'll soon find we're deaf to anything else. If we're only ever listening to unmask, we're never actually listening to understand. [emphasis mine]

Here are two examples from my own experience:

In the classes I teach at a religious high school, I occasionally incorporate articles or videos from experts who are publicly irreligious. Without fail, there will be one or two comments from students to the effect of, "Why are we listening to him? He's an atheist!" Mind you, the thing I'm incorporating could be a video or article about, say, the phases of the moon, that is purely factual and informative, with no philosophical commentary whatsoever. But some students are still suspicious, because the expert is not a Christian.

A second example comes from my public high school experience. In my 10th grade Social Studies class, I remember an awkward moment when our text book had a very brief historical overview of the rise and influence of Christianity, and it mentioned Jesus of Nazareth. I could tell the teacher was nervous and wanted to quickly get past this section of the book, but had to cover it because it was part of the required curriculum. One student raised his hand and asked, "Why are we learning about Jesus? I thought you're not supposed to teach religion in public school." The teacher very carefully explained that she wasn't "teaching religion," she was teaching history, and that required learning how some religions have influenced society. My classmate suspected there was some ulterior motive as to why our teacher (or textbook) would mention Jesus. He thought he knew what that "really means."

The unchecked mindset that people we disagree with can't teach us anything because they are untrustworthy is harmful and wrong. Growing and learning in any subject requires a willingness to look at, and understand things from different points of view. The refusal to do so will only prevent you from learning.

How To Change

Here are some practical suggestions that have personally helped me counteract this mindset in myself:

Realize that you already depend on knowledge from people you disagree with. You might not like to hear this, but no matter what your religious, political, or philosophical beliefs are, I guarantee that some of the knowledge you now have came from someone whose beliefs you vehemently oppose.

If you are a Christian: Many of the philosophical concepts that you take for granted -- such as what makes a person, or what types of causes there are, or what the role of government should be -- likely came from one of two pagan philosophers, Plato or Aristotle, and were later augmented and expanded on by Augustine and Aquinas. By the way, do you use a computer? You owe a big debt of gratitude to Alan Turing, who was an atheist, and gay. Then there are the countless scholars and experts over the centuries (archeologists, linguists, translators, textual historians, etc.) who have unearthed the ancient manuscript copies of the Bible, compared them to each other to weed out scribal errors, and translated them into English for you. Do you really think all of them were Christians?

If you are an atheist or agnostic: Do you love science? Many of the philosophical concepts that you take for granted -- such as the idea that the universe is governed by laws, or that history is linear, or that the laws of nature can't be violated -- likely came from Christian theology, and were expanded on and worked out by devout theists such as Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Boyle, etc.. Not a total pacifist? Think war is sometimes necessary but should always be conducted as responsibly as possible? You can thank Augustine and Aquinas for that. Then there are all those darn Protestant missionaries of the colonial period who went around the world proselytizing indigenous peoples. Well, if you live in a country with a stable democracy and good education, you likely owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

There's also the obvious fact that, if you went to a public school, you were taught how to read, write, do math, etc. by an eclectic group of teachers that likely included atheists, agnostics, Republicans, Democrats, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Charismatics.

I've hopefully made my point.

Beware the power of groupthink. When we always only spend time around people who share our beliefs, it is easy to fall into the lazy mindset that "outsiders" are stupid or evil; and we become more likely to believe claims by people within our group (and reject claims from outsiders) without checking them first. The psychological phenomenon of groupthink has been well documented and is dangerous for obvious reasons. To help counteract its effects, here are some great questions to ask yourself.

Practice empathy. Make an effort to have friendly interactions with, and to see things from the point of view of someone not in your group. Try to understand why they feel the way they do, and why they believe what they do. You can also cultivate empathy in yourself by reading literary fiction (not pop fiction) that causes you to see the world through a character's mind. You could try Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, and To Kill a Mockingbird for starters.

Remind yourself that agreeing with someone does not mean accepting their worldview. You can agree with someone on a particular, and disagree with them on the universal. You can agree on the facts, and disagree on the philosophy. You can receive instruction from someone, without accepting their beliefs or condoning their flaws. Don't fall prey to the urge to draw lines and disassociate yourself from everyone who says and does things you disagree with, because that's everyone. There is a time and place to do that sort of thing, but it is not everyday.

Give credit where it is due. Read an article from someone you agree with and someone you disagree with, and for both sides, find something good and bad. Don't be lazy and stingy. Take the time to parse things out and come to a thoughtful conclusion that is not based on who wrote it, but what they actually said and the reasons they gave to back it up. This will require some critical thinking.

Meditate on this scripture: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason , full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." James 3:17 ESV

In the next post in this series, I will discuss the mindset of utilitarianism.

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