After Brexit and the recent US presidential elections, many have finally come to suspect, if not realize that, beyond the trauma of an upsetting electoral result or two, democracy itself is in crisis today. For years, we watched the steady degradation of our political institutions, the shrinking of the space for civic participation, the coarsening of public discourse and the erosion of democratic values.
We have become consumers rather than citizens. Strangely oblivious of the corrosion in our social and political order, we trudged along with our own occupations (those who could hold on to them), our preoccupations and amusements. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the lobbyists, spinmeisters and demagogues who knew how to make us weep, laugh and most importantly, turn blindingly indignant. While they went about their work cynically and methodically, most of us were emasculated by endless cheap credit; distracted by the constant and tantalizing upgrades of clothes, shoes, cell phones; and benumbed by the non-stop, mindless entertainment churned out by mega corporations for our amusement.
We have become beneficiaries rather than stakeholders. Safer than those in illiberal societies, those amongst us who were more ‘active’ had our own political and cultural battles that we waged righteously- taking few prisoners and mostly adopting a scorched earth policy. In the process, we forgot that the primary difference between a democracy and an autocracy is that democracies have free, independent and responsible citizens who negotiate and cooperate creatively with each other (and their institutions) while monarchies have dependent subjects kept in check by tradition, scripture or draconian rules who can cooperate only in proscribed ways. Even those of us who were aware of this distinction and fought for our own and others’ rights often behaved as though all that was required was to force governments, institutions or society itself to deliver us our rights or privileges. At best some of us may have also tried to persuade those who disagreed with us through debate and argument. Mostly, though, we were unmindful of their sentiments, opinions, concerns or even logic, dismissing them as conservatives, racists, sexists, Islamophobes, homophobes or liberals, hippies, left-wing loons, radical idiots or feminazis.
In the next three posts, I would like to explore one key factor that goes a long way in creating a culture of democracy- dispositions. Dispositions are a peculiar phenomenon. Desmond Tutu could be said to be a man of character, Margaret Thatcher a woman with a larger than life and strong personality and Donald Trump a man with a particular disposition towards intemperate and provocative behavior. Character refers to the moral or ethical aspect of a person; personality is the visible aspect of one’s character; and disposition, which we will examine in some detail here, is the predominant inclination that a person has.
All learning (as opposed to memorizing, technical study or the mechanical acquisition of information) changes the ways in which we think about and engage with the world. Increasingly, given the reality of life in the market driven economies of the 21st century, much of what transpires as education is the acquisition of utilitarian, vocational and marketable knowledge or skills. This leaves much of humanity, at best, trained to be economically productive members of society and, at worst, ill equipped at navigating the complex social and psychological demands of being parents, friends, spouses, neighbors, employees or citizens- all of which require, beyond technical knowledge and skills, the cultivation of specific traits and dispositions.
The pedagogic demands of being a good human being, as opposed to being just an economically productive member of society, requires the nurturing of dispositions that conventional education is wholly unable to undertake. Historically, educators have called this type of education value, character or moral education. In traditional societies this was accomplished almost completely through religious or ideological instruction, which relied on rote learning, propaganda, fear and coercion to create members whose thinking and behaviors are consonant with the larger society’s.
Teaching for and the cultivation of dispositions requires what I call Deep Learning. This requires an investment in the holistic development of individuals primarily focused around a few core areas- Knowledge (application of information), Skills (ability to do something well), Meta-Skills (knowing how and when to apply your skills) and Dispositions (tendencies that affect what we do). This is what people like Neil Postman might call subversive education. Such an education attempts to educate through exploration, discovery and inquiry rather than the mere transmission of existing culture with all its biases, prejudices, assumptions and parochialism. Such an education calls into question the prevailing assumptions of a society and helps create critically thinking, genuinely conscious and sensitive human beings and citizens. Were we to develop young people of such consciousness and maturity, they, and our societies themselves, would be changed at the core and we might be better situated to address the complex problems that beset the planet and us. Needless to say, few, if any, monarchies, autocracies or theocracies would be interested in cultivating these in their citizenry. The surprising and disappointing fact is that very few democracies do so either.
Today, with democracy itself in crisis, many are questioning whether an electoral democracy can address pressing concerns like economic inequality, discrimination and even climate change. While there is enough blame to go around, even as we, with justification, beat up on politicians, financiers and their lobbyists, we now have to ask ourselves if it is just our institutions that have failed us or whether we too, as citizens, have also failed our institutions. Have we invested even a fraction of the energy, time or money that we put into our own children becoming mature democratic citizens as we have in their becoming investment bankers, MBAs and computer programmers?
The covert phenomenon of dispositions
There can be no real democracy without an informed citizenry. Autocracies can have very competent astronauts, computer engineers and surgeons. They can probably even have highly trained musicians, dramatists, writers and inventors (as long as their creativity and expression doesn’t question or challenge the dominant and ruling paradigm). However, a democratic citizenry requires a liberal, humanistic education that, above all else, teaches us:
- How to think- as opposed to what to think
- How to engage constructively- as opposed to dominating or defeating others
There are multiple obstacles that come in the way of our learning how to think well and engage constructively. Learning how to do either requires not just knowledge and skills but an orientation and set of attitudes that come only with a broad and fairly rigorous upbringing and training. It requires deep learning. The obstacles that need to be overcome include, but are not restricted to, our own brain structure and chemistry, previous experiences, knowledge, skills and the many belief systems that we hold on to because they satisfy various egotistical, emotional, material or social needs. These beliefs, about ourselves and the world (or the afterlife), create in us tendencies and attitudes that incline us to respond in certain pre-disposed ways to situations. Today with the proliferation of competing and erroneous information, the ability to think critically and engage with those who experience the world differently is more vital than ever. And yet, in the age of Google, Twitter and Facebook, with their hidden and manipulative algorithms, the chances of it happening is even less.
Dispositions are distinct from knowledge, which is what we know about the world. Dispositions are also different from our opinions, perceptions or even the skills that we possess. Put simply, a person’s disposition is their general inclination, propensity or attitude to life and the positive or negative ways in which they are likely to react in different situations. It is important to clarify that while a person may have a particular disposition, it is not a given that their actions are predictable. How someone may behave or react will also depend on the specificities of the situation and the context. Dispositions are the essential qualities that make us who we are as people and yet they remain, for many, amorphous and obscure, something that scientists and empiricists have difficulty pinning down.
Shari Tishman and Jessica Ross at Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have identified 6 dispositions that are key to thinking well: Reasoning, Questioning and Investigating, Exploring Viewpoints, Finding Complexity, Comparing and Connecting and Observing and Describing. In other words, in order to engage in clear and good thinking we need to engage in some very definite and discrete behaviors.
At first glance these may seem self-evident practices, however in order to manifest these behaviors it is necessary to also develop the skills that will allow us to do it well. This is counter-intuitive to many who either believe that good thinking is automatic, natural, linear or simple and something that anyone with a university education and without specialized training can engage in.
Over the years in teaching communication, the creative arts, critical thinking, conflict resolution, cross-cultural engagement and decision making I have realized that knowledge and skills are useless unless people are inclined to apply them. Dispositions help or prevent learning, thinking and behavior.
Our dispositions (tendencies, attitudes and inclinations) help us respond in certain instinctive ways to things that happen around us. These tendencies are fundamentally influenced by the ways in which our brains work as well as our socialization. In other words, our biology and chemistry as much as our education, culture and experiences play important roles in developing them.
Dispositions can be negative or positive. I will explore a few ‘enabling’ and ‘constructive’ dispositions that I think are vital in creating liberal democratic societies because these societies, more than any other, as I have written in earlier posts, mark an extraordinary and brave attempt to recognize the dignity, autonomy and potential of the human being. Also without these dispositions democratic societies easily regress into populism and demagoguery, becoming mere vehicles for mass consumerism and corporatism.
In the next post I will examine one such disposition, the presence of which arguably contributes to the development of most of the other constructive and enabling dispositions and the absence of which almost certainly contributes to much of the misery and unhappiness on this planet.