Boulder vs. Springs

The best article on communications philosophy in some time appeared today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Polarization of Extremes, by Cass Sunstein, explores the way in which the web can make it easy for people to just read and listen to those who agree with them. By subscribing to the feeds of info that support what we already believe, it is getting easier and easier to become completely polarized. Extremism flourishes when we water it with confident assertions without any substantive counterpoints and contrary evidence.

The most interesting factual support for this view in the article comes from research in Colorado in 2005. People from Boulder — known to be a liberal enclave — filled out opinion forms before and after a discussion with a liberal perspective on several issues. Another group from Colorado Springs — known to be a conservative enclave — participated in a conservatively-biased discussion on the same topics. In both cases the groups became more polarized as a result of hearing what they already were inclined to agree with. For example,

Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion.

For colleges, the lesson seems obvious. Cultivating a diverse community can help young people avoid this sort of crippling intellectual narrowness — if that liberality of perspective continues to embrace and honor conservative perspectives as well.

Enclaves such as my client Cedarville University face a different problem: how to include liberal perspectives while by definition the student body and faculty must commit to a conservative perspective. Here, the intellectual honesty and sense of fairness of students and faculty must be strengthened by activities that engage the enclave in dialog with a wider circle than the college can provide internally. Recent trends have been encouraging in this regard: the debate team leaving an “enclave” league and engaging in parliamentary debate with secular schools has broadened the perspective of some of the college’s brightest students. Participation on national medical ethics conferences, allowing a homosexual rights advocacy group to visit campus for courteous dialog, and the constant emphasis by President Brown on “engaging the culture” seem to keep enough air holes in the jar for the Cedarville community to avoid suffocation due to rebreathing each other’s intellectual air.

On balance, both the secular schools and the religious schools that I serve have the same problem — they tend to have a dominant institutional enclave mentality. But they all seem to be doing better than the society as a whole at forcing themselves to hear opinions that seem off-beat or strange.

For myself, I routinely read things that I disagree with, order to keep my “professional outsider” muscles strong. I love the challenge of rubbing shoulders with those who examine my assumptions and question my epistemology. And I try to find friends and clients who are willing to reciprocate by tolerating my constant, frustrating, effervescence.

I’m looking forward to getting Cass’s new book, 2.0.


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