Teaching Viewpoint Diversity

Other people matter, and their views matter, too.

The epigrpah for my capstone project: Turning Division into Discourse

When I was trying to decide what I wanted to put into my capstone project for my MAPP program, I also had to consider what I wanted to get out of it. Of paramount importance to me was its usefulness. I wanted it to extend well beyond theory; to have a practical application that might maximize a positive impact. So when I decided to address the need for teaching positive political discourse, I also decided that I would write an actual curriclum that could be used in classrooms and easily modified for boardrooms, youth groups, leadership programs, and more — but the concentration would be on educating adolescents. This is an imperative in an age where college students are routinely shutting down free speech with which they simply don’t agree. The introduction to my paper lays this all out in the following way:

“In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Americans are left to grapple with a number of troubling realities — but perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that we cannot even agree on what those realties are. In a time of political polarization stronger than any seen since the Civil War, when us-versus-them ideology is fueling a fire that rages out of control, people are quick to point fingers…As we descend into this world of hyper-partisan politics, convincing ourselves that others pose a grave threat to our nation, we continue to bear down on a fractured system with all the weight of self-righteousness, self-importance, and irate indignation.

This capstone project presents a resource that just might help to make things better. It’s a project to foster respect for viewpoint diversity within secondary educational institutions in order to create a path for positive political discourse…The Viewpoint Diversity Curriculum (VDC) is intended to be a primer for high school students to enable them to elect (and become) leaders in a society that is riven by political polarization, confusion, and mistrust. It enables adolescents to see that other people matter, even when they are on the other side. This curriculum has three objectives:

1.) To increase self-awareness and knowledge of the American political spectrum, so that students better understand themselves and their country.

2.) To cultivate intellectual humility, so that students recognize that their worldview is not complete and is likely biased, and that others have much to teach them.

3.) To develop actively open-minded thinking (AOT) skills, so that students can converse with, learn from, and debate those whose viewpoints differ from their own.

The goal of viewpoint diversity is not to promote a particular value system, but to teach students skills that will allow them to evaluate, consider, and understand the values and opinions of others while forming and enriching their own. The VDC draws heavily on positive psychology research to support its objectives and its methodology.”

With those three specific objectives in mind, I began to rethink and reframe the work I am doing in my classroom with my students every day. What does it look like to build awareness of strengths and weaknesses in the classroom? How can I practically teach intellectual humility in a meaningful way? And what do assignments that promote AOT actually look like? Plus, we needed to consider other factors: How do we build these ideas into diverse content areas without taking too much time away from specific subject matter that needs to be taught? How do we measure what we’re teaching to know if it’s actually having the desired effect? The curriculum includes a pre- and post-assessment tool crafted by joining parts of existing, valid scales to measure any movement in the stated objectives, but clearly I would need to use some traditional teaching assessments, too — things like personal essays, graded discussions, and research papers.

The trick is figuring out how to make the lessons flexible enough to fit any discipline, and the key is making sure all teachers can build in the basic components of the objectives. For instance, I decided early on that I would teach Macbeth through the lens of “fake news.” This was a very successful plan, at least in terms of making the study relevant to our times and tying in the concept of bias and intellectual humility. Why is Macbeth so willing to beleive in the witches’ prophecies? Where is his sense of humility? Does he lack the imagination or the motivation to think he might possibly be wrong? Was there another way to view the witches’ prophecies? I could tie this in with what philosopher Tom Morris explains as the “great paradox in the human experience right now,” which is that “we’ve never understood leadership better and we’ve never had worse leaders.” Is this true? I don’t know — but it’s something to consider. Clearly, not all teachers can or should discuss Macbeth, but we can all talk about awareness, options, truth, and paradox. We can all embrace the importance of considering whether we might, in fact, be wrong.

This critical questioning of our own certainty about what truth is becomes the crux of this viewpoint diversity curriculum — intellectual humility. We don’t talk enough about the importance of being wrong, and how being wrong feels a lot like being right. What it takes to keep us in check is awareness — awareness of our strengths, of our weaknesses, and of the biases to which we are all susceptible. Once we better understand the areas in which we excel and areas where we fall short, we can approach problems positively and with a mind open to greater understanding. This approach, in turn, will prepare us not only to consider other points of view, but to actively seek them out.

This is how the Viewpoint Diversity Curriculum begins. Who knows where it will lead? But it is purpose-driven and relevant. I think of Macbeth again, who in the last act of the play delivers his famous speech equating life to a tale “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” And I think about an article I read about classroom deliberation in this time of polarization: the authors point out that idiocy translates in Greek to “self-centered — selfish.” Maybe, then, an idiot does tell a tale of life that ultimately means nothing, because by that definition an idiot would not be able to recognize that “other people matter.” Understanding that simple elucidation of positive psychology could be key to living a more meaningful life. It is certainly key to considering viewpoints that differ from our own.