We don’t teach children how to take part in reasoned discussions. We probably ought to think about doing that if we don’t want everything we hold dear to go down in flames.
“Civilisation is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”
“As democracy is perfected… we move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
The outpouring of emotion that swept across America when the election was finally called last week – indeed, across the planet – was incredible to behold. On Channel 4 news (UK), Gary Gibbon described it as feeling more like the fall of a despotic regime than a democratic transfer of power (which, admittedly, remains to be seen).
The depth of feeling was expressed memorably by Van Jones on CNN, who broke down as he described how the Trump presidency has emboldened racists to air their toxic views in public. Truly, the victory of Biden and Harris marks a moment of profound catharsis that people will talk about for decades to come.
But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get too swept up in the moment. For the many tens of millions of Trump supporters, this will be a moment of equally profound loss. They will be grieving for something they have been hoping for, and working towards, for months. Many, it seems, have taken Trump’s spurious claims of industrial-scale electoral fraud at face value, and will feel consumed with rage at having been cheated of their most steadfast desire.
Biden and Harris talk about the need to unite the country – to ‘help people see one another again’. It’s an admirable and necessary aim, but they are up against it. The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma outlined with alarming clarity how Silicon Valley has accidentally driven society to the brink of civil collapse – not just in the US, but all over the planet – by creating algorithms that generate vast sums of money by pushing more and more extreme and polarising content in front of people’s eyes. This is how we get QAnon conspiracy theorists elected to Congress. Most concerning of all, nobody seems to know how to make it stop. The only advice the documentary could offer was to ‘turn your notifications off’. I’m no Nostradamus, but I don’t think that’s quite going to cut it.
But this post isn’t about algorithms, or indeed about the need to heal a divided America. Instead, I want to ask – as James O’Brien did yesterday, with absolute incredulity: Why on earth did 70 million people vote for Trump in this election?
Elections are complicated things, and it goes without saying that people vote for many reasons – tribal loyalty, gun control, jobs… Often, people ‘hold their nose’ when they vote, sucking up what they see as the worst aspects of a candidate or party for the greater good.
But these questions are evergreen. People voting in tens of millions for somebody so clearly unfit for public office as Trump – this is new. And I think we need new explanations as to why so many people would vote for someone like him.
In 2016, we might have argued that people didn’t know any better. I mean, the writing was on the wall – “grab ’em by the pussy” was in the public domain before the 2016 election – but we didn’t have anywhere near the evidence we now have that the man is a pathological liar, for example. By September 2020, the poor fact checkers at the Washington Post had racked up an astonishing 22,510 demonstrably false or misleading claims throughout Trump’s presidency, an average of around 16 a day, with an astonishing high score of 74 in a sing day (August 12th, 2020).
There’s also his assertion that global warming is a Chinese hoax; his gross mishandling of the Covid pandemic, with by far the highest death count of any country on the planet; and his repeated refusal to condemn violence, racism and antisemitic conspiracy theories, effectively fanning the flames of hatred and division. And all this against the backdrop of his endless golfing amid unending civil unrest. I know the economy rallied a bit because of all the America first stuff. But really, he couldn’t have done much more throughout the last four years to telegraph his absolute unsuitability for high office.
So how on earth was somebody with this track record able to persuade 70 million people to go out and vote for four more years? No doubt people will pore over this question for years to come, and as I say, I understand that there are many factors in play. I recently read a brilliant book by Professor Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – which goes a long way to explaining why people vote the way they do.
According to Haidt, more often than not these decisions are made at a gut level. Reason doesn’t really come into it. We make moral decisions with our guts, and then we rationalise those decisions after the fact. So even when those rationalisations are weak or fall over – and even when we are presented with evidence or reasoning that undermines our position on a given issue – we rarely change our minds (or really, change our guts) as a result.
Haidt’s theory is certainly backed up by the video below of interviews with attendees of a Trump rally from earlier this year. Now, I know this is not robust social research – no doubt this is a biased sample, and it has clearly been edited for comic effect, to portray Trump voters in a particular light. But please just watch the clip – in its entirety – before reading the rest of this post.
Like I say, people vote the way they do for all kinds of reasons. But it does appear that a significant contributory factor may be that many of our fellow human beings seem incapable of engaging in reasoned discussions.
What’s fascinating about the clip is that many of the people who feature in it use the language of critical thinking and reasoning. Here are just a few examples:
- 26s – “That I don’t know. I’d like to get to the bottom of that.”
- 40s – “If there were witnesses.”
- 45s – “She has the motivation to lie.”
- 2.53 – “I don’t think it’s fair.”
- 8.53 – “I think he (Bolton) is a liar.”
Taken in isolation, these sound like the utterances of reasonable people – people who think things through, who are sceptical, who understand the importance of evidence, who grasp that sometimes people have a motivation to lie and that we shouldn’t trust what they say.
But in this video, it is abundantly clear that these people – in these instances, at least – are extremely limited in their ability to follow through a line of critical thinking to arrive at a sensible conclusion:
- 1.10 – “And what’s your source?” “Just Facebook or Twitter.”
- 4.04 – “Haven’t all wars been started by men?” [Long pause] “Yes.”
- 4.40 – “Hilary sucks. But not like Monica.” “So we were talking about treating women with respect” “It’s an American ideal that we treat women with respect.”
- 5.42 – “It’s locker room talk. That’s what boys do.” “Do you have any children?” “I do” “Do they talk like that?” “No they don’t.”
- 8.33 – “How did we get here with no evidence?” “He didn’t do anything” “Well said!” “So we should let everybody testify.” “Correct. Oh. Oh, yeah. No.”
- 10.07 – “You can tell he hasn’t done anything wrong just by his demeanour. I mean, he would be trying to hide things” … “But Trump is blocking witnesses” [Long pause] “I don’t care.”
- 11.10 – “Have you read the transcript?” “Er, I trust the word of our President, man.”
- 11.50 – “Pay attention and think for yourself” “But to be clear you have not read the transcript?” “I haven’t, no.” “But it is just important.” “Yeah. Don’t be a sheep, think for yourself… do your own research.”
- All the people saying it’s important to read the transcript (of a 2019 phone call in which Trump very transparently asked the President of Ukraine to interfere in a US election) – apparently in the belief that he did nothing wrong – when they hadn’t read it themselves. (The transcript is just 5 pages long, with a large font size, and was published on the Fox News website, among other places).
We also see evidence of the phenomenon that Van Jones spoke of, with people feeling emboldened to air their racist/homophobic/misogynistic views in public (e.g. 2.30 – “You don’t even try to hide the racism any more.” “What? You’re at a Trump rally bro.”)
To be clear, I do not suggest that this phenomenon is unique to Trump supporters – or indeed to our friends across the pond. Without wanting to get into specific examples, there is plenty of evidence of people all over the planet holding strong opinions that they are unable to back up with reasoned arguments or evidence. When it comes to having reasoned discussions with our fellow humans, it would appear that we are in the middle of an epidemic of ineptitude.
Why is this happening, and how can we make it stop?
The reasons for this epidemic of ineptitude are no doubt many and varied – the media culture, the aforementioned algorithms, the 5G signals messing with our minds (joke, just to be clear). Some of these are big, thorny problems that are extremely difficult to fix.
But I believe there is one really powerful cause which is incredibly simple (and fun) to fix, and it is this: we don’t teach children how to take part in reasoned discussions in schools. There are many reasons for this. Here are a few:
- Oracy (speaking and listening) is often undervalued in schools, compared with written literacy and numeracy.
- It takes time to teach children how to take part in reasoned discussions and to provide regular opportunities for them to practice, and there’s a lot of content to cover.
- Talk is invisible – it doesn’t leave a paper trail. For this reason, talk isn’t easy to assess – and in schools, we treasure what we measure.
- A lack of expertise – it takes a while to learn how to run reasoned discussions, and teachers often aren’t taught how to do this.
- To the extent that schools do focus on oracy, it is often on things like debating and public speaking. These are really important things to teach, but they also have downsides. Public speaking is performative, rather than collaborative, and is more to do with transmission and persuasion than exchanging ideas and learning from other people. And debating carries the inherent message that dialogue is something that can be ‘won’. Each week, newspaper columnists argue excitedly about who ‘won’ Prime Minister’s Questions, without ever pausing to consider what a silly idea this is.
The solution to this problem is obvious: we need to teach children how to take part in reasoned discussions, and then provide opportunities for them to practice doing it every day.
As luck would have it, there has been loads of research done on this in recent years, and there is broad agreement around what constitutes best practice. What’s more, working with children (and adults) in this way absolutely fascinating, and loads of fun. There are two key findings from all this research and practice:
- It’s really quite easy to teach children how to take part in reasoned discussions.
- When we do so, it leads to all kinds of benefits in terms of cognitive outcomes, social and emotional outcomes, and life outcomes.
I won’t get into the details of how to do this here, a) because this is already approaching an impolite length for a blog, and b) because I have written about it extensively elsewhere. For example, I recently wrote a series of six blogs for Oracy Cambridge that sets out my thinking on how to do this pretty comprehensively.
- Part 1: A rationale for oracy
- Part 2: The importance of talk rules – and how to make them work for your pupils
- Part 3: Collaboration and complexity – how to nudge children out of the apparent comfort of their friendship groups
- Part 4: Rehearsing for when you get to run the country: The importance of debate
- Part 5: Creating confidence: the power of presentational talk
- Part 6: “It’s absolutely gripping”… The power of Philosophy for Children
It it is true that civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe – and I think the available evidence suggests that Wells was on to something when he wrote this – then we need to have a hard-headed look at how we educate children, and how this plays out in the world.
I have written elsewhere on these pages that our reliance on exams to capture children’s learning creates minds that are interested in being better than, rather than better with, or better for. It is therefore no surprise that the “winners” from our education system – those who go on to achieve high office – often behave in incredibly self-interested ways, as evidenced by the tsunami of public money that is currently being funnelled into the pockets of conservative party cronies.
Likewise, if we do not teach young people how to take part in reasoned discussions – and if we do not provide them with opportunities to practice and sharpen and refine those skills every day, learning how to take part in civil discussions even with their perceived enemies – then we should not be surprised when we see people who are apparently incapable of critical thought lending their support to someone like Trump.
We need to rethink education from first principles, starting with the question: what kind of a world would we like to see?
Or, perhaps more urgently: what kind of a world do we need to see?