Democracy Requires Critical Thinking. By This Test, We’re Failing.

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tags: election 2016, democracy, Walter Lippmann, Critical Thinking, Dewey

Formerly a Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard, Daniel Noah Moses, Ph.D., is the Director of Educator Programs at Seeds of Peace. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Seeds of Peace as an organization.   

On a bus weaving up and down the hills of Jerusalem I listen on the radio to Donald Trump’s voice from the final presidential debate suggesting that he might not accept the results of the election. No matter who wins November 8th, the American people have already lost. This surreal electoral contest, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a failure of democracy.

There are critical differences between a presidential election and an international conflict, of course, and it’s only too easy to fall for analogies that obscure more than they clarify. Yet there are also clear similarities worth exploring. In both cases, people are divided from one another by gaps that are growing increasingly wide; we carry emotional baggage and unquestioned assumptions about “the other” and rarely interact in meaningful ways with human beings from “the other side.” By and large, we consume segregated news from particular sources selected to confirm what we are already inclined to believe. Politicians, pundits and circus barkers fan the flames. The public sphere is filled with clowns, thieves, arsonists and spectators. There is a dearth of opportunity to bring people together from across lines of difference or to address effectively issues of pressing concern. Both this American presidential election and the Arab-Israel conflict raise doubts about the capacity for self-government.

These difficulties facing democracy are not new. Surveying the catastrophe of World War I --that “war to end all wars” -- the journalist Walter Lippmann wrote in his book, The Phantom Public (1925): “The environment is complex. Man’s political capacity is simple. Can a bridge be built between them?” After studying and teaching history and social theory, I moved to Jerusalem ten years ago to explore this question while doing “peace work.”

The potential of people from different sides of an ethnic, religious, racial or national conflict, or a divisive domestic social issue, to figure out workable solutions (even as the conflict continues in peaceful ways, through courts, elections, etc.) boils down to the potential for enlightened public opinion based on recognizing, respecting and accommodating different perspectives, needs and interests, along with a set of overarching values. Lippmann was pessimistic. He believed that the expertise required to form well-grounded opinions about political issues requires levels of capacity and commitment that are simply out of reach for most citizens in the modern world most of the time. Thus he argued in favor of enlarging the role of experts with specialized capacity to research, analyze and distill options so that those in positions of power can make decisions in the midst of relentless complexity.

Although he agreed with much of Lippmann’s diagnosis of the problem, the American philosopher John Dewey specifically opposed Lippmann in his own book, The Public and Its Problems (1927), and more generally in his life-long dedication to democracy as a living practice. Dewey offered a vision of active citizenship, which grew from his faith in education. He encouraged experiential learning and advocated the ethos of scientific inquiry in all aspects of life. He is a father of what we now call “critical thinking.” He wrote that “the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.” To put it mildly, such thinking is in short supply.

Such thinking grows from a set of educational commitments far beyond test scores. As the Director of Educator Programs at Seeds of Peace, I work with educators, community leaders and artists from across lines of difference and conflict—Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Cypriots and Americans. During the summer we offer a unique experiential three-week course at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine. Throughout the year, we work with participants from the summer program to reach out to their colleagues, students and communities in an effort to nurture reflective learning communities, and to cultivate imagination, empathy, social awareness, critical thinking and civic engagement. We work within communities and across lines of conflict. We bring people together whenever possible to do our small yet tangible part to construct and multiply healthy public spheres.

Terms like “peace work,” “peace-building” and “conflict resolution” are partly misnomers. It’s less about the stereotype of “peace” and more about active, meaningful, productive conflict. It’s transformative education. People in conflict need safe opportunities to connect, to express themselves, to be challenged by perspectives distant from their own. This is not comfortable. It requires trust-building and communication skills. It requires courage. It takes time.

What we do is a test of the ideas and hopes that Dewey expressed. He wrote: “Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community.”

At the beginning of every camp session, the co-founder of Seeds of Peace, Bobby Gottschalk, talks to the newcomers about participation in the day-to-day camp community as “life the way it could be.” At Seeds of Peace, we co-create a model community based upon authentic communication across lines of difference. Teenagers and adults gather separately for daily “dialogue.” After the summer, each small camp community joins the larger Seeds of Peace community, which continues to grow and expand. People who have tasted “life the way it could be” create their own counter-culture of possibility. To put it another way, we are a school for public spheres, a school for democracy.

During our pilot American session at the camp this past summer, I was struck by the intensity of racial conflict, by the gulf between “old” and “new” Americans, and by how well the practices developed for international conflicts work in an American context. In both cases, larger success depends upon the extent to which what works at this micro-level can be scaled up so that people working in communities and across lines of conflict are able to engage with one another, to create a critical mass, to transform public opinion and then actual policies in ways that handle humanely and effectively the multifarious realities and needs on the ground.

Lippmann’s appraisal of the capacity for self-government in the midst of such complexity resonates (though his recommendation to rely on experts is of limited use). Trump’s aspersions against the American electoral process are but a symptom of long-term malaise. In the ten years since I moved to Jerusalem, meanwhile, the situation in the region has only gotten worse. Yet sitting on the bus, going up and down the hills of Jerusalem, listening to Donald Trump’s voice, thinking of John Dewey’s faith, I don’t believe that it’s fair or accurate to say that Dewey’s vision has failed when we, Americans, Israelis, Palestinians—we human beings who who share this small suffering planet--have barely even tried.