Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Task for Foundations: Cognitive Dissonance for Conservatives

A recent study in Nature (see this summary in Slate) found that those with "a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change." In other words, even when faced with dissonant or contradictory data, people who identified as conservative were more likely to stick with their original idea rather than respond to new data and give more accurate responses.

It seems to me that this highlights the importance of foundations as a place where students learn, through their engagement with a range of theories and historical information, to think in a more critical fashion. If the nature study is right, then it is true that foundations classes will be more difficult for conservative students to tolerate than more progressive ones. Of course, this is no surprise to any of us, but it is interesting to have this kind of "scientific" confirmation.

It also indicates, however, that particular kinds of engagements in foundations are most important for initiating students into critical thought. To the extent that we teach "theories" in foundations classes as if they have some independent reality, we may tend to shut down critical thought. It's only when we teach students to bring theories into critical contact with the complexities of real situations, where theories inevitably break down, that we are teaching the kind of thinking necessary for a "scientific" world-view.

It's not "foundations" in general, not the "content" of foundations that is important, here. Instead, again unsurprisingly, it's how this content is taught that is important. I'd be inclined to argue that this kind of teaching is more likely to happen in foundations classes, but this is certainly not assured.

In other words, yes, there may be something inherently "liberal" or "progressive" about critical foundations classes (and the like), as conservative critics are inclined to claim. But this is often the case only because "conservative" thinking is, to some extent, inherently anti-empirical. The problem comes when foundations becomes "liberal" in an anti-empirical way, itself. Which can sometimes happen. (E.g., John Dewey against George Counts.) The conflict, here, may be as much between systemic and empiricist thinking as it is between defined political stances.

Interestingly, this is not just a "conservative/liberal" issue. Other research has shown that people raised in "western" cultures have much more difficulty than those in "eastern" cultures in holding two dissonant ideas about the world at the same time. To some extent, then, being "liberal" also means being less "western" in some ways.

(Some have attacked the Enlightenment as the source of this tendency to shy away from contradiction. However, as Peter Gay's magisterial overview of Enlightement thought shows in detail, the enlightenment was more focused on empiricism than simple rationalism. In fact, it is accurate to think of the Enlightenment as a response against the reality-evacuated world of scholasticism that preceded it, as a reaction against systems that proported to tell clean stories about the world that had removed themselves from empirical reality.)

So that's what's running through my head this morning

Update: Here's a critique of the conclusions of the Nature study. It was sure to make conservatives grumpy.

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