How should educators teach the election of 2020? No doubt it’s essential. Pulitzer-winning historians Eric Foner, Jon Meacham, and Doris Kearns-Goodwin have gone on record saying that this Presidential contest is epochal, that the outcome may well be challenged in historically important ways, that it rates as a high-stakes “crisis election.” The recent presidential debate put students on notice that the contest will be bruising; they’re fascinated — as they might be watching a car wreck on YouTube. They want to talk about it.
For teachers, though, it’s fraught. My high-school U.S. Government and Politics classroom is not a sterile bubble immune from the polarizing culture that surrounds it. Just last month, President Trump asserted that violence in American cities was “a direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” I’ve been teaching for over 30 years and can’t remember ever convincing a student to change political affiliation, but the President’s accusation isn’t going to burnish educators’ credibility. The challenge, as I see it, is to avoid both proselytizing and insipidly teaching the opposing sides in rote point-counterpoint. The aim is to teach objectively, with impact.
For me, a through path begins with understanding how people make judgments at moments of stress and uncertainty. Nobel-Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman described that process in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” (2011). Kahneman debunked the notion that people normally make such decisions as rational actors. Instead, he asserts, humans possess two decision-making systems: one involving “fast,” intuitive, largely subconscious impulses, and a second utilizing more deliberative, “slow,” rational means. Kahneman shows that the first system, the fast one, is usually our go-to —even for experts making decisions in their field of specialty.
While experts often utilize fast thinking to good effect, among ordinary people quick intuition usually leads to astounding error –and young people are far from expert about politics, civics, or U.S. history, so recent national standardized test results show. Kahneman, and a host of psychologists, historians, and sociologists have proven that political judgments are especially prone to passion, childhood socialization, irrational fears and desires. And politicians play to those half-buried emotions.
I teach Kahneman’s ideas and related studies involving how we form judgments before moving into explicitly political lessons with students. I open with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger coined this expression in the 1950s. It means that we want harmony in our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors and will go through bizarre mental gymnastics to shut out disruptive information.
We also tend to take in ideas through the filter of confirmation bias, meaning that we prefer news that supports our pre-existing worldview.
Defaulting to such preferences, when we watch a debate, we seize on ideas that coincide with what we already believe. We literally do not hear or see conflicting or complicating information. Our candidate looks fair, balanced, and smart—as he did before we tuned in–and the one we dislike comes off as tongue-tied, weak, and ignorant, just as we suspected.
Our skewed judgments are exacerbated by the fact that, today, “two-thirds of American adults get their news from social media,” according to David Sanger’s recent book on the weaponization of cyberspace. Another study cited by Astra Taylor in her 2019 book on democracy has found that fabricated stories on Twitter are far more likely to be re-tweeted than accurate news, so that “erroneous stories . . . reach people six times faster than true ones.” Russian GRU agents capitalized on these trends in 2016 by creating hundreds of bogus social media accounts and flooding voters with messages that played to anxieties about race, class, gender, religion, the Second Amendment, abortion, and other hot-button issues.
Given our preference for fast thinking, an overheated political environment, and systemic disinformation, my goal when teaching election politics is to get students to engage Kahneman’s “slow” system of thought. That’s the rational one that demands mental effort and attention. It’s not an easy shift, the fast system is our default and makes fewer intellectual demands, but here’s how to start:
1) Have students watch a debate three times. The first time, let them react with passions and biases in play. The second time, have them attend with a notepad and pen and give them specific tasks to record: how many policy statements did each candidate make? How many personal attacks did each engage in? How often did the moderator let one or the other violate the rules? How many questions did each evade? The third time takes place after students have read various fact-checking outlets. That third run-through can lead to more objective conclusions about each candidate’s tactics, messages, and moderator influence.
2) Ask students to research and make the best argument they can for the candidate they don’t support. This will force them to think slowly and engage with complicating evidence.
3) When students make questionable fact claims, demand to see their sources. Follow up by vetting those sources: exposing falsehoods, teaching how ethical journalists source stories and handle attribution, and calling out fake news purveyors. I’m struck that most students have no real understanding of what professionally trained journalists do, or how a newspaper story differs from social media posts. You have to teach them.
We likely are at a crisis moment in history. The sense of crisis is deepened by predictions on both sides that, should the opposition win, American democracy could be finished. I’m sometimes sorely tempted to wade in with my own strongly held opinions, but doing so will erode my credibility and is unlikely to win over students who harbor opposing beliefs. Rather than teaching them what to think, I’ll settle for teaching students to think more deeply. That, in itself, sounds like a political agenda for a culture awash in outrage.
Chris Doyle, Ph.D, teaches history and government at Avon Old Farms School.