How Can I Teach High School Students to Reason Like Us?
I’m proud of the open, intelligent discourse at SocratesVotes. Really. Everyone that’s chimed in has really stepped up to the plate (except Charlie on the Sarah Palin turkey speech… geesh.) But one website can only do so much good. It’s time to branch out and get ‘em while they’re young, so I’m looking to develop a 1-hour workshop with the Baker Center for Public Policy that will encourage high school students to reason through controversial social issues like us—respectfully, intelligently, with an open mind, etc.
Below’s the curriculum I’ve worked out so far. How can I make it better? Should I target jr. high or elementary kids instead? (I remember just hassling all my guest speakers in high school—at least I pretended to care what they had to say when I was in jr. high.) What might be a good issue to cover in step V—not too bland but not too controversial? Is a workshop the best forum, given my goals? I’m counting on your feedback! Here’s what I’ve got so far:
I. Establish that the current model is broken: illustrate that there’s nothing especially ethically authoritative about democratic decisions, so just voting your gut or with some pompous pundit isn’t enough. Just because 50% + 1 think an issue should go one way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily morally right. A majority could vote to enslave a minority, but that wouldn’t legitimate slavery, and constitutional democracies don’t escape this problem either, since a majority could alter their constitution to make slavery constitutionally consistent. Or a constitution could implicitly endorse slavery from the get-go by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for voting purposes… The point is, if democratic decisions are to have any real legitimacy, they require an engaged electorate. (Main obstacle—the very institution I’m using to reach them has been indoctrinating them from kindergarten to believe American democracy is perfect, and probably hasn’t said much about responsible voting to avoid pissing off parents.)
II. Redeem democracy by revealing what it can be, when practiced the right way: explain that the decisions of reflective, engaged, respectful citizens do have some moral authority because a) reasoning together, they’re more likely to settle on the moral truth than if they were bickering together or reasoning alone, b) genuine reflection and communication publicly affirms mutual respect, which should console those on the losing side of a vote and encourage them to stay engaged, and c) their conclusions truly would represent the general will, not just the aggregate of a bunch of minimally informed knee jerk reactions. (Main obstacle—they’re probably not used to hearing these sorts of justifications. Will they buy it?)
III. How do we get there? Explain the virtues of the ideal democratic citizen: open-minded, genuinely respectful of fellow citizens, able and willing to engage in two-way communication, willing in principle to change one’s mind if presented with good enough reason (perhaps contrast these with the vices of the corrupt democratic citizen). (Main obstacle—the model I’m promoting isn’t practiced by hardly anyone, and especially not by the sound bite left/right constant rhetoric talking points leaders they see on tv. Will it seem too idealistic?)
IV. Test case: run through a test issue, perhaps something fictional to disarm the students. Reason through it from the perspectives of an ideal citizen and a corrupt citizen (might use a more neutral term than “corrupt”), reiterating why we should all strive to emulate the former. (Main obstacle—inventing an issue foreign enough to get everyone’s emotions out of the way [I'm thinking of something Martians are struggling with], but concrete enough to hammer the method home.)
V. Application: have students work through some issues, moderating to promote the virtues and point out the vices when they arise. (Choosing an issue that’s just right—not too bland but not too spicy. Definitely not abortion!)
VI. Debrief: recap superiority of this approach, do a Q & A, solicit student feedback (what they thought of the program, whether it will change the way they approach controversial issues, etc). (Main obstacle—cleaning up the blood after step V.)
So there you go—that’s what I have so far. It may be just a little impractical since most issues are decided by representatives, not referendums. But candidate selection would require a whole nother exercise—I’m just trying to get them to think through the issues for themselves. Then again, maybe I could supplement the debrief with a few words on choosing candidates (ranking and weighing the importance of particular issues, and adding up the net value of competing candidates), influencing their policy positions, and encouraging them to practice the above within government. Or I could make that part of the core… somehow.
I’ve got high hopes. I’ll refine this model after a few trial runs, streamline the curriculum, export it to all 50 states, start training instructors, and respectful intelligent issue analysis will finally become the norm! But first, any ideas?