Teaching Open-Mindedly in the Post-Truth Era

A year on, and this one, sadly, only seems more relevant…

[Originally published June 16, 2017]

I had brilliant students, can’t say enough about them, won’t stop trying. I happened to be in touch with one alumna – as sharp a thinker as I’ve ever met, and a beautiful writer – in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election campaign and wrote the following piece in response to a question she posed:

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

I was pleased that she asked, doubly so at having a challenging question to consider. And I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to compose a thoughtful reply.

I’ve revised things a little, for a broader audience, but the substance remains unchanged.

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

Good heavens. Hmm… with respect for peoples’ dignity, is my most immediate response. But such a question.

Ultimately, it takes two because any kind of teaching is a relationship – better still, a rapport, listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. Listening, not just hearing. But if listening (and speaking) is interpreting, then bias is inescapable, and there needs to be continual back-and-forth efforts to clarify, motivated by incentives to want to understand: that means mutual trust and respect, and both sides openly committed. So one question I’d pose back to this question pertains to the motives and incentives for teaching (or learning) ‘X’ in the first place. Maybe this question needs a scenario, to really illustrate details, but trust and respect seem generally clear enough.

Without trust and respect, Side ‘A’ is left to say, “Well, maybe some day they’ll come around to our way of thinking” (… that being a kind portrayal) and simply walks away. This, I think, is closed-minded to the degree that ‘A’ hasn’t sought to reach a thorough understanding (although maybe ‘A’ has). Whatever the case, it’s not necessarily mean-spirited that someone might say this. With the best intentions, ‘A’ might conclude that ‘B’ is just not ready for the “truth.” More broadly, I’d consider ‘A’s attitude more akin to quitting than teaching, which is to say a total failure to “teach”, as far as I define it from your question. It would differ somewhat if ‘A’ were the learner saying this vs being the teacher. In that case, we might conclude that the learner lacked motivation or confidence, for some reason, or perhaps felt alone or unsupported, but again… scenarios.

Another thing to say is, “Well, you just can’t argue with stupid,” as in we can’t even agree on facts, but saying this is certainly passing judgment on ol’ stupid over there, and perhaps also less than open-minded. To be clear… personally, I’d never say bias precludes truth, only that we’ll never escape our biases. The real trouble is having bias at all, which I think is what necessitates trust and respect because the less of these is all the more turmoil. I figure any person’s incentive to listen arises from whatever they think will be to their own benefit for having listened. But “benefit” you could define to infinity, and that’s where the post-truth bit is really the troublesome bit because all you have is to trust the other person’s interpretation, and they yours, or else not.

Yeah, I see “post-truth” as “anti-trust,” and that’s a powderkeg, the most ominous outcome arisen of late. People need incentives to listen, but if treating them with dignity and respect isn’t reaching them, then a positive relationship with me wasn’t likely what they wanted to begin with. That’s telling of the one side, if not both sides. At the same time, it’s harder to say in my experience that students have no incentives to listen or that, on account of some broader post-truth culture, they don’t trust teachers – that might be changing, who knows, but I hope not.

But I’m leaving some of your question behind, and I don’t want to lose sight of where it’s directed more towards the person doing the teaching (you asked, how do you teach open-mindedly…).

That part of the question was also in my immediate reaction: respect peoples’ dignity. For me, when I’m teaching, if I’m to have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally need to respect the other person’s dignity. I need to be more self-aware, on a sliding scale, as to how open- or closed-minded I’m being just now, on this-or-that issue. So even while that’s empathy, it’s also self aware, and it’s intentional. It’s not “me” and “the other.” It’s “us.”

Me being me, I’d still be the realist and say you just can never really know what that other person’s motive truly is – whether it’s a pre-truth or post-truth world doesn’t matter. But whether or not you trust the other, or they you, the real valuable skill is being able to discern flaws of reason, which is what I always said about you – you’ve always been one to see through the bull shit and get to the core of something. I’m no guru or icon, I’m just me, but as I see it just now, the zeitgeist is an emotional one more than a rational one. And there’s plenty to understand why that might be the case. And given that emotional dominance, I do think post-truth makes the world potentially far more dangerous, as a result.

Whatever incentives people are identifying for themselves, these days, are pretty distinct, and that’s a hard one for unity. That saying about partisan politics – “We want the same things; we just differ how to get there” – that doesn’t apply as widely right now. So, by virtue of the other side being “the other” side, neither side’s even able to be open-minded beyond themselves because trust and respect are encased in the echo chambers. More than I’ve ever known, things have become distinctly divisive – partisan politics, I mean – and I wonder how much more deeply those divisions have room to cut. Selfish incentives cut the deepest. Trust and respect guard us from deep cuts.

So, for instance, lately I find with my Dad that I listen and may not always agree, but where I don’t always agree, he’s still my Dad, and I find myself considering what he says based on his longevity – he’s seen the historic cycle, lived through history repeating itself. And I obviously trust and respect my Dad, figuring, on certain issues, that he must know more than me. On other issues, he claims to know more. On others still, I presume he does. Based on trust and respect, I give him the benefit of the doubt, through and through. One of us has to give, when we disagree, or else we’d just continually argue over every disagreement. If you want peace, someone has to give, right? Better that both share it, but eventually one must acquiesce to their “doubt” and make their “benefit” finite, stop the cutting, compromise themselves, if they’re to see an end to the debate. So should I trust my Dad? I respect him because he’s given me plenty good reason after such a long time. Certainly I’m familiar with his bias, grown accustomed to it – how many times over my life have I simply taken his bias for granted? Too bad the rest of the world don’t get along as well as my Dad and I do.

I see it even more clearly with my daughter, now, who trusts me on account of (i) her vulnerability yet (ii) my love. The more she lives and learns alongside me, as time passes by, the more cyclically her outlook is reiterated, a bit like self-fulfilling prophecy. Other parents have warned me that the day’s coming when she’ll become the cynical teenager, and I’m sure it will – I remember going through it, myself. But I’m older, now, and back to respecting my Dad, so at least for some relationships, the benefit of the doubt returns. My Dad preceded me, kept different circles than me, and lived through two or three very different generations than me. Even as we see the same world, we kind of don’t. So this is what I wonder about that deep cut of division, reaching the level of family – and, further than one given family, right across the entire population. Do I fact-check my Dad, or myself, or maybe both? Should I? Even if I do, neither one of us is infallible, and we’re only as trustworthy as our fact-checking proficiency.

Anyway, the child of the parent, it’s as good an example as I can think of for questioning what it means to learn with an open mind because there’s no such thing as “unbiased.” Yet love, trust, and respect are hardly what we’d call “closed-minded,” except that they are, just in a positive way. Love, trust, and respect leave no room for scepticism, wariness, and such traits as we consider acceptable in healthy proportions (for reasons about motive that I explained above).

But “teaching” with an open-mind takes on so much more baggage, I think, because the teacher occupies the de facto as well as the de jure seat-of-power, at least early on – school is not a democracy (although that now seems to be changing, too). Yet teachers are no more or less trustworthy on the face of it than any other person. That’s probably most of all why I reduce my response to respecting human dignity because where it’s closed-minded, for all its “positive,” it’s also a do-no-harm approach.

That jibes with everything I’ve learned about good teaching, as in good teaching ultimately reduces to strong, healthy relationships. Short-term fear vs long-term respect – it’s obvious which has more lasting positive influence. And since influencing others with our bias is inevitable, we ought to take responsibility for pursuing constructive outcomes, or else it’s all just so much gambling. At the core, something has to matter to everybody, or we’re done.

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