Upholding democracy…one class at a time

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 23, 2021

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

All those who teach will, at some point, come up against a conundrum. Students are “remarkably confident in their views on nearly everything, but desperately scared of being ostracized”.

Those aren’t my words. They were written by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. Mr Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics.

Their observations on students’ fear of ostracism appear on Persuasion, which incidentally, describes itself as “a community for people who are open to changing their minds, but not their fundamental values”.

I think the two professors are spot on in their analysis of students’ great confidence and great worries. They should know. Not only are they experienced educators, but their latest book is ‘Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us’.

They write on Persuasion that it’s striking how Generation Z betrays a lack of “intellectual humility” as well as the disinclination to take “opposing views seriously”.

The two professors say that in the past dozen years, they have team-taught a course that conducts “a dialogue between economics and the humanities. In the early days, it was mostly a class on how different academic disciplines approach the search for truth. But, in response to changes on campus and in the larger world, it has evolved to focus on facilitating civil and constructive conversation”.

They ask their charges to write papers to support their own view on a particular issue. And they must “argue against the strongest position of the other side (a technique sometimes known as ‘steel-manning’, as opposed to straw-manning). Each week we remind them of John Stuart Mill’s great line that ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that’.”

They argue that classroom environments should be “intellectually diverse”, possibly with interdisciplinary team-taught courses. However, recognising that may be an unattainable ideal, they offer some pointers “for educators hoping to create an open classroom”. While the two professors are speaking in the American context, their insights are equally valid elsewhere.

** A ‘what is said here stays here’ rule: So that students know the classroom is an “intellectual laboratory” rather than a site to examine perceived heresies.

** Set expectations for conduct”: Remind students that dialogue should not lead to retaliation or public shaming.

** Promote genuine dialogue through the “unending exchange—and testing—of ideas”: This is vital to democracy, the professors write, because “democracy can only survive if people recognize that they might be wrong and that those with whom they disagree may have good motives for their opinions”.