Monday, September 6, 2010

Creatures of Comfort

Although we love the idea of choice - our culture almost worships it - we seek refuge in the familiar and the comfortable.
Hugh Mackay- Australian Social Psychologist

In reflecting on issues of tolerance and intolerance, particularly as exemplified by the current view of Muslims by Americans, I tend to harken to my roots as a social psychologist to explain why people act as they do.  Nicholas Kristof blames this intolerance on fear of the unknown and other.  However, I tend to agree with the Onion and see the trend as the result of people's inherent unwillingness to learn about new things or to challenge belief systems we hold.  I fear this trend is true of the educated as well as those with less education.  We seek out the familiar, that with which we agree, and avoid the opinions of those with whom we disagree.

As a lawyer, I am trained to look at multiple sides of an issue.  However, as I read an article by Michael Arrington yesterday,  I realized that as a reader I have slipped into the complacence of reading and agreeing with what I believe, and as a blogger I am starting write about what I think my readers want to read.

I have a friend who listens to conservative talk radio to get that point view even though she does not agree with it.  I wish I were that disciplined.  I do not have the patience.  But I did read an article yesterday about education by a conservative writer and found myself agreeing with some of it.  The article' argued that college education is too costly and not a good return on investment.  I agree with that premise but disagree with what should be done.  The author, Michael Barrone, suggests that college education is in decline because it caters to the masses.  Some of his conservative colleagues, he writes, believe that college should be reserved for "scholars" while most people get some sort of occupational training, based on testing done earlier in life.  Under this theory, we would adopt a system like Germany's, for example, where testing determines who will be educated to be the elite and who will be the working class.

Education is exactly what we need for the masses because it is our only hope that we will overcome our inherent need to stick with the familiar and thus reinforce the beliefs we hold dear.  We need to encourage our young people to think, to explore alternative ideas and to open their minds to otherness.  Unfortunately our education system fails at that task early on.  I am hopeful that new national assessment tests being explored  by 44 states that purportedly will measure critical thinking will help in that regard, as teachers start to teach to the new test.  However, we all need to examine our desire to close ourselves off to other points of view.  We need to get comfortable with our discomfort in the face of difference.

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