Roland Davidson: Learning between the lines

Thursday, January 5, 2017 - 3:48pm

There’s often a sense among educated, liberal elites that there just aren’t enough of us. If only everyone went to college, then we could really get at solving the world’s problems. If only those people read "The New Jim Crow," then they would understand racial segregation and be on our side. This elite mindset imagines a world where societal dysfunctions like bigotry and apathy can be cured by some good books and four years of instruction.  

This is true to a certain extent. Many studies have found that going to college diminishes racial prejudice. While no one thinks that college is a cure-all, popular imagination contends that education and a populace having more knowledge get everyone on the same page.

Think about something as “mundane” as people’s attitudes toward global warming. Belief in global warming should theoretically be universally improved upon by a good science education. The typical understanding of that dynamic is that global warming is happening and those who don’t believe in it just don’t know enough (or are corporate shills). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

In a recent study, Yale professor Dan Kahan recorded respondents’ political beliefs, measured their “science intelligence” (a metric recording of their scientific knowledge and quantitative reasoning abilities) and whether or not they believed that “There is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity such as burning fossil fuels.” He found that the more political knowledge someone had, the more likely they were to align with the party line regarding global warming. That is, conservatives with a strong understanding of science are more likely to believe global warming isn’t happening, while scientifically literate liberals believe global warming at much higher rates than their less-educated counterparts.  

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a similar phenomenon that caused partisans to seek out information that confirmed their existing opinions. But this goes beyond that. People with strong identities will actively reject information that doesn’t confirm their biases. Additionally, people with strong partisan identities form partisan opinions more quickly and more often when presented with unfamiliar scientific information. For instance, giving a set of Republicans and Democrats with little agricultural knowledge facts about the health risks of genetically modified organisms and telling them that Democrats are more likely to believe that GMOs are harmful will cause both groups to join the party line. 

This is particularly troubling given the increasingly polarized state of American politics. A lot has been made of Americans living in a “post-fact” reality where facts no longer carry persuasive currency. This can be true, but it seems as though even having those facts doesn’t bring our society closer together. While Kahan’s study focused on climate change, we can expect this dynamic exist in all sorts of domains. Welfare reform, social justice and news coverage are all subject to this bias. Suddenly, it seems as though more education and more facts won’t help bridge the gaps in our society.

But there is hope. In another study, Kahan found that people with high levels of intellectual curiosity are willing to buck their party’s consensus and accept science’s consensus. So, it is possible to fix this rampant bias toward contorting facts; our society needs to reinvigorate a desire to learn and a belief that learning starts, not stops, at the classroom’s door. We can look within our community for ways to do this. The University of Michigan wants to inspire leadership, but there needs to be more. Teaching students to be lifelong learners is imperative. I think there are a lot of ways to inspire this sort of intellectual curiosity.  

As a University, we can move away from tests and research papers as the primary ways of measuring a student’s mastery. I appreciate that with large weeder courses like Econ 101, there are few opportunities to assess students’ understanding outside tests, but there are many seminar-style courses where the final project could draw directly from other disciplines. Shakespeare classes could combine literary analysis with interviews with scholars; math courses could challenge students to find ways to take the techniques they’ve learned in class and apply them in their own lives. Let students do independent projects to round out courses rather than following a narrow set of guidelines.

This paradigmatic change is a large undertaking, but the rewards are well worth it. Universities have an obligation to our civic society and creating students whose love of learning continues long after graduation only serves to better the lives of everyone around them. Let’s try to be a model for the rest of society by being the learners and the best.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.