Friday, September 17, 2010

The dangers of zealotry & ideology

"The spirit of which I speak creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaing; arrogates to itself every virtue--denies every merit to its oponents; secretly entertains the worst designs . . . mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last, frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing."

This is an excerpt from an 1830 Senate speech given by Edward Livingston in which he spoke critically of the reflexive partisanship and unreflective ideologies that were manifesting themselves in the debates about states' rights.  Livingston, who was a close political ally of Andrew Jackson and who like Jackson believed in the inherent goodness and wisdom of the American populace, was discouraged by the lack of civility, informed discourse, and thoughtfulness he saw in the political conversation of the period.  At the risk of an oversimplification, Livingston believed that people could make wise political decisions, but that uncivil, ideological debates prevented the wisdom of the citizenry from winning the day.  

When I read this part of Livingston's speech last week (in Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion) it resonated with me because I see a lot of the same sort of thing today (maybe it has always been a part of large societies?).  Of course I thought immediately of the political realm and the unbending ideology that is part of every election cycle.  But, I also see it in education.  There are the qualitative & quantitative wars within research circles, the acquisitionists vs. the participationists in the learning sciences, and of course the behaviorists vs. the cognitivists vs. the constructivists.  Differences of opinion are a good thing, but only if those that hold those varying positions can engage with one another in civil and productive ways.  And, there is less and less of that happening these days.

Pluralism, be it theoretical, political, or practical is a good thing.  Communities can thrive when they are made up of diverse individuals who see the world from a variety of perspectives.  But, that outcome is only possible when we can engage in thoughtful dialogue with one another and use this diversity to work towards common purposes and, whenever possible, an enriched shared understanding (see James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds for a great treatment of this and related ideas).  In fact, the tension created between conflicting ideas can be powerful when it protects against excess, extremism, etc.  When two (or more) positions compete for attention and screen each other for weaknesses, we have a much better chance of arriving at some sort of critical understanding that is useful in guiding policy, practice, or behavior.  But, we have to listen to each other long enough, closely enough, and open-mindedly enough before we'll ever get to that point.  

I saw a good example of this (on a micro-level) recently when I attended a meeting of the Provo City School District Board of Education.  One of the agenda items for the board's study meeting was a proposal for the district to contribute some of its property tax revenue to the development of a parking structure for the Provo Freedom Plaza.  The board was fairly split and, from what I could infer, felt quite passionately about the issue.  There has been some history of less than outstanding real estate deals with Provo city in the past and some board members felt like the district had been burned.  Others felt strongly that the board should support the project because of its potential to bring money back to the district in ten years and because of the projects potential positive impact upon the city.  Initially, the discussion was quite heated, but I was impressed with board members' ability to put their passions and biases aside and listen to one another.  The final vote in the business meeting later on in the evening was still split, but at least two board members who were initially quite passionate in one direction or the other had changed their stance by the time the final vote was called for.  It was gratifying to see elected officials who were able to listen dispassionately and be critical of their own views.  Ultimately, I think the board made the decision that was best for the city and best for the district.

If only there were more of this in other places be it the senate or academic conferences.


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