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U-Va. professor: ‘What good is education in the face of someone who closes their mind to facts?’

U-Va. professor: ‘What good is education in the face of someone who closes their mind to facts?’
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A memorial at the site of the deadly car attack in Charlottesville on Sunday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Post)

Educators, as University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham writes, “might be particularly dejected” by the deadly weekend violence in Charlottesville that was sparked when white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members marched and clashed with counterprotesters.

Why? He explains in the following post, in which he asks and answers this question: “What good is education in the face of someone who closes their mind to facts?”

Willingham, who has taught at the University of Virginia since 1992, focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed early this year by President Obama to be a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, the independent and nonpartisan arm of the U.S. Education Department, which provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.

He is the author of  several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also blogs here, and his posts have appeared frequently over the years on The Answer Sheet, including “What is developmentally appropriate in learning” and “Why kids lose interest in reading as they get older.” He can be reached at willingham@virginia.edu  and you can follow him on Twitter @DTWillingham.

This appeared on his Science and Education blog, and he gave me permission to republish it.

By Daniel Willingham

Like so many other Americans, I am despondent about the weekend events in Charlottesville. Yes, I work there and live nearby, so there was some poignancy in seeing events unfold in streets and near buildings I know so well. But more, it’s the bitter recognition of how far we have to go. Like others, I am certain that we’re not seeing a resurgence of racism, antisemitism, and chauvinism, but a more realistic look at what has always been there.

Educators might be particularly dejected. Have we not in some way failed? How can people believe ideas that are so self-evidently wrong? Are they that ignorant of basic facts? Are they that incapable of probing the soundness of the ideas they espouse?

Key tenets — at least those made public — of the organizer of Saturday’s rally are (1) white people are oppressed in America; (2) European culture is dying (3) the white race is “dispossessed;” (4) the solution to these so-called problems is what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing” which he apparently thinks can be squared with the Constitution. Readers of this blog will not need to be convinced that these ideas are factually laughable, so I won’t marshal evidence against them.

You can’t blame people for thinking that anyone who believes this nonsense simply closes their mind to facts and is motivated by ideology — an ideology that is plain evil. What good is education in the face of someone who closes their mind to facts?

I’ve put it crudely, but I think something close to this is right. Yet it’s worth trying to refine our understanding of the motivation of the Nazis* who gathered in Charlottesville.

People hold beliefs for multiple reasons. One — but only one — reason people believe things is in an effort to make their beliefs coordinate with reality, to be in line with the objective truth about the world.

People also hold beliefs to belong to a group, to maintain social ties. They believe things to regulate emotions. They believe things to promote and maintain their self-image. The believe things to protect values they consider important.

So for example, I might believe that a secret cabal of Jews runs the world economy because my close friends and family believe it; I hold this belief, in part, to maintain social ties. Now suppose I hear that some friends have threatened an elderly Jewish store owner in my neighborhood, which upsets me a little, because he’s a nice old guy who has always been pleasant to me. I may adopt a new belief — the old man must be part of the cabal, or at least knows about it — as a way of regulating my emotions. I don’t want to feel bad for the store owner, and I don’t want to believe my friends are doing something wrong. So I start to have doubts about the old man.

This is why persuaders work so hard to create doubt; doubt as to whether we know cigarettes cause cancer, doubt as to whether whether we know human activity changes the climate, doubt about whether we know GMOs are safe. If we doubt, that means there is not a settled reality out there in the world with which we must be sure our beliefs align. That allows the other influencers — emotion, social ties, sacred values — room to operate. We tell ourselves “no one really knows” and so we go with beliefs that feel right.

An important aspect of this situation is that is that we never admit to ourselves that we are influenced by anything other than facts. I may believe the science linking cigarettes to cancer is “unclear” because thinking that it’s clear, coupled with the fact that I smoke, makes me very anxious. But I’ll never say “I choose not to believe the science because doing so frightens me.”

This fact is our secret weapon. People actually want to believe what’s true. So if I could sit the Nazis down and present evidence that they are wrong about racial differences, they would change their minds? How much factual evidence is required to change an inaccurate belief obviously varies, depending the strength of the other motivators — to what extent to you believe something because it maintains social ties, is important to your identity, and so on.

It would be very very difficult indeed to persuade the people who marched in Charlottesville that their ideas about race, religion, immigration, history, the United States government, and many other things are wrong. But for each person who marched, there are likely hundreds or thousands who did not march but who read about these events and thought “Huh. Well, I see their point.”

These people might be reached. The children of these people might be reached.

The way to reach them is with facts, by building in them a habit of seeking evidence for their own beliefs, and with the skills to seek and evaluate that evidence. That’s the long-term goal of educators. So if you’re an educator, don’t lose heart. If you think your curriculum needs to do a better job on the history of the KKK, or Nazism, or the Constitution, or whatever, then work for that change.

But in the main, keep doing what you’re doing. Every educator has learned, years after the fact, that he or she had a profound influence on a student, although at the time that was not at all obvious. The same principle applies here. You likely do not know the good you are doing.

In the shorter term, educators and non-educators can help by fighting fake news in all its aspects. Fake news stories are designed to provide what looks like objective evidence for a wished-for belief. Everyone has a friend or two on Facebook who re-posts these stories. Don’t just roll your eyes. Let your friend know it’s not accurate.

Equally important, stand up for mainstream media sites that get it right. If you don’t already do it, support a newspaper you admire by paying for a subscription. Over the last decade I have been interviewed for hundreds of stories about education. With apologies to my friends in these media, my impression is that writers for television, radio, and magazines all, to a greater or lesser extent, worry about entertaining their audience. In my experience, newspapers are the only medium where truth is the primary concern. You know newspapers are struggling. Do your small part.

Truth is our greatest weapon against senseless evil. Fight with it. Fight for it. And don’t be discouraged.

*I’m aware that not all of the marchers would call themselves Nazis and I’m aware they varied in the degree to which they were coy about their veneration for Nazism. I tend to paint racist, anti-Semitic xenophobes with a broad brush. It’s a personal failing I’m not really working to correct.

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