Can a school eradicate ideological polarization?

The Problem: The Internet, you may agree, is a horrible place to learn to argue. (If you disagree, feel free to troll about in the comments section!)

The Internet has led to the proliferation of ideological tribalism. It's made it easy to demonize those whose faces we don't see, to mistrust those whose ideas are foreign (and wrong!), and to shame those who slightly differ.

In short, the Internet seems to have marked a return to some of the worst aspects of our hunter-gatherer heritage.

Of course, many corners of the Internet aren't like this at all. But adolescents, eager to believe in something (and to experience the thrill of argument), are often drawn into the worst the Net has to offer.

It's in this setting that they develop their personal beliefs. And they take some of the techniques of the Net back to offline life.

This isn't unique to any one group — it happens across the political spectrum.

What we'll try to do:

We'll aim to inculcate students in meaningful and healthy discussion of things that matter from a young age.

How?

First, by internalizing the practices of fantastic communication — speaking honestly and kindly, interrogating ideas but not people, and seeking understanding before trying to win. We'll do this throughout the school day — in science, math, cooking, and play.

And second, by exposing kids to a wealth of intellectual diversity from a very early age. By the time they're adolescents, they'll have understood something about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, secularism, Buddhism — and more. They'll see that there are good people in all of these, and that these religions carry helpful insights, whatever students believe about their truth value.

They'll also have understood something about political philosophies: liberalism and conservatism, socialism and fascism, libertarianism and liberation movements. They'll see that there are, again, good people in each of these, and that these ideologies carry helpful insights.

They'll be accustomed, that is, to a diversity of beliefs. And they'll see that forming their own beliefs isn't a matter of clutching to purity of opinion than of drawing from the wisdom of many people, and many ways of thinking.

Can we raise a group of kids to reason across intellectual lines? We think we can.

If you like this, you might also be interested in our practice of nonviolent communication, and our curriculum of diverse cultures.

Open questions:

Who's already doing this? Is formal debate a good tool — or a bad one — for helping children reason across ideological lines?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA