If we accept Tuschman's claims as empirically validated science, which indeed, very serious scholars and I do, I believe it forces educators to reconsider how we approach not only political education, but the educational project as a whole. Below, I will very briefly summarize some of his major findings and then touch on some of the key implications.
Tuschman's, Our Political Nature, shows that every population on earth contains progressives and conservatives, which is a distinction fundamentally hinging on our orientations toward change. Liberals are more change-oriented, whereas conservatives are more change-averse and value maintaining the status quo. Countries of course vary in their relative degree of liberalism or conservatism, but there are no nations comprised solely or overwhelmingly by only liberals or conservatives. Indeed, cross-national studies of political orientation indicate that within all countries a majority or large plurality of people are relatively moderate in their political leanings and there are increasingly fewer people who occupy more ideologically coherent progressive or conservative positions at the poles of the political spectrum. The political spectrum thus maps out as a normal distribution, or bell curve, within states across the world. While the subject matter of ideological difference varies between countries due to differences in cultural understandings, economic development, and historical experience--which are sometimes better captured by more multidimensional tools such as the political compass or the horseshoe theory--the reality is that the political spectrum itself is a cross-cultural phenomenon.
I've seen this myself from personal experience. I grew up between Greek Town, India Town, and one of three Chinatowns in the world's most multicultural city, Toronto, Canada. But I have lived and taught for extended periods in some of the most conservative cultures in the world, including in rural Japan and a self-isolating German Mennonite community in the Middle of Nowhere in Northern Alberta. I have also explored over 230 cities in thirty-three countries. In every single place I have lived or visited, I have encountered both liberally-minded and conservative individuals. This has been the case even in places that impose strong cultural prohibitions against individualism and deviance from group norms. As a very left-leaning individual, I have never failed to find people who are more like me than others in their community, which in collectivist or sociocentric cultures can be a real burden to bear, indeed. The reason I encounter "deviant liberals" in even highly conservative places is that, as Tuschman shows, cultural conditioning can only go so far in shaping phenomena that have strong natural underpinnings.
It is highly improbable that the cross-cultural presence of a normally distributed pattern of political orientation could be explained through processes of political socialization, that is, by the "nurture" side of the nature vs. nurture debate. Our political cultures simply vary too widely for that to make much sense. Moreover, Tuschman demonstrates that our political orientations have genetic origins by employing the gold standard of evidence in the classic nature-nurture debate--twin studies. The great benefit of twin studies is that they allow social scientists to make evidence-based claims about the genetic origins of examined traits because identical twins share 100% of their DNA. Unlike fraternal twins, identical twins evince strong similarities across a wide range of behavioural indicators. If one smokes, they other likely does too. If one is a nail-biter, a poor sleeper, an optimist, and yes, a liberal, then so too is their identical twin most of the time. A key confounding variable in studies of identical twins is always the home environment. If identical twins are raised in the same home, it is impossible to tease out whether a given shared trait is shared because of socialization or genetics. The most valuable studies are therefore of identical twins who were separated at birth, for any measurable sameness between the twins cannot be attributed to the home environment and is almost certainly of genetic origin. This turns out to be the case for political orientation. Identical twins raised apart have large statistically verified similarities in their political beliefs.
To be more precise, Our Political Nature shows that 40-60% of the variance in political orientation is rooted in the genes. This is a massive finding with truly important implications, as I will discuss below. This means that we are in no small part born as well as made leaning liberal or conservative (almost all moderates lean one way or the other). This is actually a pretty old finding; Tuschman's innovation is his explanation for why we are the way we are, which he shows is due to the necessity of adaptions in the face of survival pressures as we evolved as a species.
Tuschman argues very convincingly that millions of years of evolutionarily adaptive behaviour have shaped our personality traits in a number of statistically predictable ways. Political orientations are strongly rooted in personality dispositions expressed through key traits dubbed by psychologists the Big Five--Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (the acronym is OCEAN). Two of these traits, openness and conscientiousness, are significantly correlated with political orientation. Liberals are relatively more open to new experiences and tend to be weaker when it comes to acting conscientiously. Conservatives tend to be more averse to change and are more conscientious. These are statistical averages. There are always individual exceptions, but they do not negate the underlying pattern. If you are highly conscientious, there is a strong probability that you are a conservative rather than a liberal. If you are highly open and interested in learning new things and traveling to new places, you are statistically more likely to be a political liberal and less likely to be a conservative.
Key studies in the book show that political orientation in adulthood is largely predictable through analyses of personality dispositions in early childhood. Toddlers who are "autonomous, expressive, talkative, and relatively under-controlled" grow up to be liberals, whereas kids who are "uncomfortable with uncertainty, rigidifying when under duress, and relatively over-controlled" tend to grow up to be politically conservative. While our political orientations change slightly as we age (due to processes of brain maturation and exposure to negative experiences we tend to get more conservative), they tend nonetheless to correlate by 0.80 (extremely strongly) across an individual's life span. Interestingly, political orientation also turns out to be the strongest predictor when seeking relationship partners and of the endurance of a relationship. This is part of the reason why conservatives and liberals do not make great bed-fellows.
Tuschman shows that these patterns exist for good evolutionary reasons. They are rooted in varying degrees of tribalism (in-group/out-group orientations), acceptance of hierarchy and inequality, and conceptions of human nature as more cooperative or competitive. As we evolved over millennia, the presence of members of the tribal group who were both open to new experiences and fearful of them helped the human species adapt and survive in the face of threats. Those who were willing to experiment with new foods, find new mates, and go new places, expanded our food choices, helped us avoid breeding with those who were too genetically similar, brought us to live in more habitable environments, and developed tools that kept us and our offspring alive long enough to reproduce. Those who resisted such experimentation helped us avoid deadly pathogens, resist threats from other species and aggressive human competitors, and thereby also played a major role in the continuation of our species. Human groups, then, were made up of those who were both neophilic and xenophilic, open to experience and attracted to outsiders, and those were were neophobic and ethnocentric, averse to novelty and change and protective of one's own group. These impulses are the origins of liberalism and conservatism. The crucial point, moreover, is that we still are this way. These patterns are not only still evident--just look at the polarized reactions to the Paris terror attacks and the debates over refugees--because they are evolutionarily inscribed, they are not likely to change any time soon.
I know people will have a hard time accepting this line of evidence and reasoning. Leftists are likely to dismiss it as genetic determinism or a hegemonic narrative that functions to reinforce patterns of privilege, while those on the right are apt to find much of Tuschman's evidence to be rather offensive. (Much of it is based on a very lamentably labelled tool called the Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) test). Plus, the history of human evolution is not very pretty. Humans have engaged in some horrific stuff, and much of it is not classroom-appropriate. But this does not mean that we have nothing to learn from this important work. To simply dismiss Tuschman because the findings rub one the wrong way is myopic and misguided. If our aim is truly to understand political realities--how things actually are--and not solely seek to explain how they "should" be, then we need to take scientific evidence seriously, including when it causes us discomfort by calling certain long-standing assumptions into question. Anything less would be anti-educational.
Tuschman and a great many other renowned researchers explain why this body of evidence is going to take a long time to reach general acceptance, and it has to do with how we perceive information and how we reason. Most people are completely unaware of how our cognitive processes work. We think we are rational beings who come to reasoned conclusions when faced with life choices. But in so doing we overlook the fundamentally emotive nature of reasoning. Cognitive neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, and psychologists like the Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman and NYU's Jonathan Haidt all show that our thinking processes are inextricably linked to our emotionality. We cannot even make basic decisions about what to eat for lunch, much less whether a political choice is morally right or wrong, without the use of emotion.
On the neurological level, most choices are made intuitively and automatically. Reasoning functions as an ex post facto justification for our underlying intuitions. But this process happens so quickly that we are not even aware of it. As we become more educated, Tuschman shows that we become more polarized in our political views. This is because we get better at what Jonathan Haidt calls "confirmatory reasoning." We develop increasingly sophisticated explanations for our evolutionarily imprinted and personality-expressed emotional intuitions as we get older and more experienced in defending our views. Because most of us are not politically aware, most people end up as political moderates. But for those of us with ideologically coherent positions, we confirm and re-confirm our inclinations through conceptual learning and influences from like-minded peers. Over time, we become more polarized in our standpoints and less open to engaging with the perspective of the "other side." Liberals hang out and mate with liberals, read liberal news sources, learn the dominant liberal narratives, get great at countering opposing arguments, and vice versa. Because we feel deeply that the other side is "wrong" and because we are subject to the confirmation bias when exploring information and easily dismiss information that doesn't accord with our fundamental intuitions, we close our minds to almost all new ideas and evidence if they are discordant with how we look at the world.
This is where I think K-12 education can and must play an important role. Young people are far more willing to engage with controversial ideas than are most adults, and they are more open to considering alternative perspectives. More than that, I have found that my students actually find the idea that we are to a significant degree naturally liberals or conservatives to be quite a relief. It means they are normal. It means their feelings and their efforts to figure themselves out are valid. This knowledge creates a genuinely inclusive "safe space" by indicating that all students' feelings are worth considering because they are rooted in adaptive value for us as a species. Of course, not all views are morally equivalent and classrooms cannot be inclusive of ideas that hold great potential to harm. But when we begin to acknowledge as teachers and students that the "other side" adheres to a different set of views not because they are "ignorant," "naive," "heartless," or whatever, but because such views are rooted in naturally different ways we process information about the world, then we are really forced to take alternative perspectives more seriously. After all, we are never going to convince each other that we are "right" if we don't understand ourselves and each other first.
I see Tuschman's findings as one of the key linchpin concepts in creating a more humane, interesting, and effective approach to social science learning in particular, and to schooling in general. While I am just beginning to wrap my head around it all, some implications already seem clear.
Educational Implications of Our Political Nature
We need to teach kids about the emotional nature of cognition. This is a simple but profound point. We need to make very clear that the evidence on this score is widely accepted and irrefutable. As Kahneman famously puts it, we both "think fast" and "think slow." Most of our thinking is automatic and non-conscious. Most of our slower, more careful reasoning, such as when we construct a cogent argument, is geared towards rationalizing our emotional, "fast thinking," inclinations. Kids need to learn to listen to their guts but also to know when they are experiencing, to borrow a term from Daniel Goleman, stress-induced "emotional hijacking." This point should be a core learning objective in schools, and part of a much larger emphasis on social and emotional learning, including through an integration of positive psychology research findings on well-being and embodied learning modalities such as mindfulness meditation.
We need to teach kids that their political differences are natural and valid. Tuschman's basic findings should be taught in schools. In saying this, I want to underscore that education does not equal political indoctrination. Our role as educators is to not to teach kids what to think, but to support them in learning how to think and thereby come to their own evidence-based interpretations. Interestingly, he and other researchers have come to very similar conclusions through quite different approaches. I think counterposing his theory with Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is an interesting and appropriate approach. Haidt argues political decisions are fundamentally moral intuitions and that liberals and conservatives have different moral makeups. For liberals, morality has three essential foundations, care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating. Liberals thus aim to enhance care, reduce harm, promote equality, eliminate oppression, and encourage fairness. Conservatives also value these foundations, but care about them to a lesser extent. However, their moral matrix is also broader, and includes factors that most liberals do not see as moral issues at all. These include loyalty, obedience to authority, and protecting the sanctity of revered beliefs and practices. Exposing kids to these theories and having them critically compare and contrast Tuschman's and Haidt's (and other authors') arguments and evidence is extremely worthwhile and illuminating for teachers and students. However one goes about it, I think all kids need and deserve to know that their moral and political intuitions are not in and of themselves "wrong" (though some are clearly misguided as judged from a standpoint of cultural appropriateness).
We need to encourage exploratory as well as confirmatory reasoning. Tuschman's evidence that schooling simply deepens ideological divisions is disconcerting. My aim as a teacher is absolutely not to help kids get better at telling themselves and their friends why they are "right" and why their ideological opponents are "wrong." This is antithetical to the development of new knowledge insofar as it closes us off from listening to perspectives and ideas that we have something to learn from. Sharing this simple distinction (which I got from Haidt's, The Righteous Mind) has been pretty powerful in my classroom. Teenagers get it right away. In doing their first Major Research Projects (MRPs) last quarter, many sought out theories that would seemingly "prove" their hypotheses. Trying to explain that this is not how we should be using theory, and that we should instead see theoretical perspectives as lenses that shed light on subjects from different angles, has not been easy. Kids, just as much as adults do, want to feel "right," they want to feel that their worldviews are valid and validated. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and indeed we need to teach the skills of critical argumentation. But doing so in a solely confirmatory manner is inherently limiting. Explaining this to my students turned out to be very easy once they accepted that ideological differences are natural and normal. The question of how to encourage exploratory as well as confirmatory reasoning, however, is more tricky. An obvious starting point is to have students read and more seriously consider arguments and evidence from sources they normally would be averse to engaging with. Constructing arguments that use emotive language to evoke positive responses on the other side is another possible approach. Fundamentally, I think what matters is that they are consciously aware of which type of reasoning they should use and when. Generating new ideas or searching for evidence on a new topic should be largely exploratory, whereas supporting a claim or a hypothesis is inevitably more confirmatory.
We need to teach political persuasion as well as political debate. I think Tuschman would very much agree that teaching debating skills, while useful and fun, functions mostly to polarize individuals and groups rather than to bridge divisions. An interesting and growing group of political psychologists has been focusing of late on learning how we can be more effective at persuading political opponents. Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, profs at Stanford and U of T, respectively, have shown through their research that it is doable. As they put it in the NY Times,
"...reframing political arguments in terms of your audience’s morality should be viewed less as an exercise in targeted, strategic persuasion, and more as an exercise in real, substantive perspective taking. To do it, you have to get into the heads of the people you’d like to persuade, think about what they care about and make arguments that embrace their principles. If you can do that, it will show that you view those with whom you disagree not as enemies, but as people whose values are worth your consideration."
I think this is a highly worthwhile thing to learn and to teach. Very little is known about how to do this well at this point, and even less is known about how to persuade on a mass scale (shifting the bell curve of political orientations to the left or right), but for the reasons Willer and Feinberg stated, it is well worth experimenting with anyway. (It might even be the case that the key to political activism is to move to the centre in order to get your opponent to move to her centre and thus closer to your side).
I'll have my students work on an assignment along these lines at some point soon. Maybe for the third quarter I'll modify their MRPs to focus on social action. They could identify a political or social problem they want to understand, conduct research, but instead of constructing essays or videos to teach an audience about their topic they could aim higher, aim to persuade an audience. This would require that they select a target audience and learn to understand its moral and political inclinations, identify and construct emotionally effective language, and develop a social media campaign to change people's minds. It's a good idea but it needs more thought. I wonder whether a political persuasion club might be a better starting point...
K-12 "Social Studies" Needs to Evolve Into "Social Science." Let's face it. Our schools are at least partially responsible for the utter dearth of political understanding across the world. I was really quite shocked when I started teaching Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which in my view are not the least bit advanced at all. The curricula are a "mile wide and an inch deep," focusing on rote memorization with some slight conceptual application. They do not prepare students with the basic research and academic writing skills needed in first-year university courses. And they also focus far too much on "government" over "politics," and on history above all else.
I don't know the reason for this, but I can draw a couple hypotheses. One is that the courses are designed with large-scale standardized assessments in mind. The AP exams I prepare students for are incredibly dumbed-down, discourage responses that integrate answers into coherent paragraphs, and are therefore simple to grade. The scoring guides are clearly designed for speed and every single AP examiner I have spoken to concurs that this is a necessity. What a waste of time! The other reason probably has to do with the politicization of education in the news media. Teachers and schools are an easy target and are targeted often. Curricular changes are highly controversial in every country in the world, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the US. This no doubt means there is aversion to change amongst those in the most direct lines of sight. I don't blame them, but the status quo is lightyears from good enough.
I am privileged to work in a high achieving, results-oriented school. So long as my kids excel, I am mostly free to do whatever I want. Relatively unconstrained, I am able to inspire kids to engage with concepts that would lead to parental phone calls in other contexts. I am also able to deepen and broaden the curriculum in numerous ways. I don't have to avoid controversial issues, but instead rely on them. This makes understanding multiple perspectives all the more important--and interesting! Tuschman's findings, by leading us to value the standpoints of "all sides," arguably help broaden the possibilities for social science education by making it safer for teachers to teach controversial issues. But going beyond this, we also need to identify core cross-disciplinary findings in the social sciences that are widely accepted, interesting, and could be considered "essential understandings." Every single kid on earth should receive a basic introduction to the social sciences. Currently, almost no one does.
We need to put greater focus on cultivating self-understanding as an educational goal. For me personally, despite my utter fascination with the subject of political psychology, what I find most interesting and engaging about Tuschman's work is that it helps me understand myself better. Seeing political orientation as having dispositional roots reflected in the Big Five has really opened my eyes a lot more. I now understand myself to be highly open, extraverted, agreeable, only slightly neurotic, and unfortunately low on conscientiousness. This helps explain my progressivism (and why despite my deep and abiding love of learning, school was like a prison sentence for me). It also helps me see why I have had to work so much harder than most people I know in order to establish positive habits and meet my goals. I think it might help motivate one to learn conscientious behaviour, if one sees that it is an area where they are lacking.
Moreover, to the extent that I understand myself better, I am also better enabled to understand others through comparative analysis. I feel I have a much more accurate, fair, and tolerant conception of what it means to be a conservative than I ever did in the past, and I'm really grateful for this new awareness. Imagine schools not only helped every child understand himself well but also those who are hardest for us to understand--our moral and political "others"?
Cultivating understanding of our individual political orientations is only one small part of this, but it's a key one and clearly one that is systematically overlooked in schooling. Social studies typically helps kids view themselves as having intersecting social identities (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability), but almost never provides an individualistic lens. I think we definitely need both. As technology allows for greater possibilities for personalized learning, it only makes sense that we should help kids understand their character strengths (and weaknesses), so that they can more easily and accurately find their passions and purposes in life. Currently, almost all schools fail miserably in this regard and school is therefore seriously sub-optimal for most kids. I have struggled to integrate tools for self-analysis and building character strengths in my courses this year. I feel there should be a dedicated course or some other form of ongoing support for these ends.
We need to teach character and do it fairly. The US has a long tradition of character education in schools. But unfortunately, most attempts have focused on teaching "good behaviour" in order to get kids to settle down, focus, and learn. Given the clear evidence that conscientiousness is a better predictor of success in school and life than IQ or any other individual-level variable I know of, this has been a sound goal. But most efforts ignore the positive attributes of students who display disruptive behaviour. Kids who cause problems in class tend to either have an emotional issue that is distracting them or they are simply bored. Such kids are sometimes among the brightest, and have a clear "need for cognition," which is associated with openness. But many lack conscientiousness. Rarely are they taught how to actually improve in this regard. I know personally how difficult it is, but I also know it can definitely be broken down into a learnable set of skills. These include learning about and consciously practicing habit formation, goal setting, self-monitoring, using if-then reasoning to avoid pitfalls, learning to plan and manage one's time, cultivating resilience, and for many, setting personal rules to live by. However, character education is rarely evidence-based. Often many kids are told repeatedly what "good character" consists of, are expected to conform, and then are punished when they don't manage to. In this sense, character education is highly conservative in nature and arguably discriminatory towards those who need it most. When we understand kids better through the prism of personality, we can meet kids not only "where they are," but also as who they are, and develop more appropriate, effective, and individualized strategies for kids to develop their strengths and work on their areas of weakness. Positive Psychologists, such as the brilliant Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth have been working on this for quite a while, but I feel that their efforts are more supportive of helping kids develop conscientiousness than other traits such as openness. Both matter.
We need to differentiate instructional approaches to meet the needs of all learners. Nothing new here, but differentiated instruction has not, as far as I know, been considered from the standpoint of personality. We differentiate content, product, process, and so forth, but usually within a standard
teacher-centred (didactic) classroom or through an inquiry-based approach. I think it would be really interesting to see how kids with varying personality traits respond differently to different learning environments. Are highly open, weakly conscientious kids better off doing relatively unstructured research projects? Or do they learn better in more controlled environments? How can teachers help such kids be more conscientious without forcing them to be through carrots and sticks, which doesn't seem do much more than make kids hate school? How, on the other hand, can we encourage highly conscientious but relatively closed students to be more open to new ideas? In my experience, the most effective people (but not necessarily the smartest) are those who are both highly open and highly conscientious (as I suspect Tuschman and most professors are). To what extent are these personality predispositions alterable? At what ages? And how do we go about it, exactly? I think this is a fascinating area for future research and development.
As I move forward, I plan on tinkering around the edges of many of these ideas. I am limited in what I do this year (time is highly scarce in schools), but I have a great opportunity next year. I will be teaching the new AP Seminar course, which seems so far to be a wonderful (and sorely needed) supplement to the AP Program. This course focuses on research, argumentation, and presentation skills through analysis of issues from multiple perspectives. That's great as it is, but the really opportune part is that teachers (and if teachers allow them to, students as well) get to choose the topics, thereby essentially
designing the curriculum content. I'm thinking of choosing three core themes: Understanding the Self and Others, Understanding the World, and Living With Passion and Purpose. There is much to think about and much to synthesize, and that's just awesome. Education should be an adventure! I'm deeply grateful to Avi Tuschman's Our Political Nature for opening my eyes to see possibilities for a new educational direction.
As always, suggestions, comments, and criticisms are very welcome and highly appreciated!