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UNESCO piece for Futures of Education Project

Commentators for the past century have consistently observed, in light of the exponential rate of change – in culture as well as in technology (which are often inextricable) – the ever-increasing necessity for humanity to collectively recognise its neurological, psychological and sociological fallibility, and mitigate against the consequences our own limitations have the possibility of leading to. Despite this, we find ourselves embroiled in numerous existential crises, all of which are deeply complex and inescapably urgent. Now, more than ever, populations all over the world need – simply in order to function – to understand more things than most people could ever have comprehended in a lifetime in most of the previous generations that have ever existed. This, of course, is impossible: the whole world cannot simultaneously become experts in climate science, renewable resources, virology and immunology, politics and technology. However, what every person – in every place where their needs are being met to the point where they have the mental space to conceive of a sufficient level of education (if we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs it would be un-sensible to assume that those who struggle simply to feed themselves and their children have the time or energy to commit to learning new ways of thinking) – is very much capable of being taught is that they are not experts, that every issue is far more nuanced than it seems, that there is always an alternative perspective. Objectivity is a difficult skill to use effectively, but it is something that can be learnt, and research has shown that the younger we begin learning such skills, the better we become at using them (for example, see the work done by the P4C movement). Every human is capable of learning to be cautious with information. Most are capable, where necessary, of checking whether the information they are consuming is flawed: being critical, careful, and aware are all things we can learn to do to the point where they become second nature. Young children are already learning to do this in some, but not enough, countries.

Various names have been given to the concept, the most recent of which is ‘critical thinking’: the ability to step back, be objective, and consider the broader implications and associated facts of an issue before coming to a conclusion about it. In a world in which there is a constantly, exponentially increasing amount of information available to a huge portion of the world’s population, it seems clearer than ever that such an ability is essential for the global society to function effectively and cooperatively. John Dewey was extremely vocal about it, Bertrand Russell advocated the skills encompassed in the present-day conception of it, Walter Lippmann demonstrated the necessity for it by describing how unnatural it is for us to use it in our day-to-day lives.

This ability not only applies in a cooperative context. It applies to all of the major issues that humanity is facing and will come to face in coming years. The environmental crisis requires everyone to understand and to commit to change, and this is only possible if the people of the world understand their own minds’ ability to fool them into believing untruths. Understanding our limitations mitigates against arguments about fallacies, unnecessary and limiting divisions that obscure more important issues, and even prejudices.

If people learn, from a young age, to acknowledge that there are as many perspectives as there are humans in the world, then they will be better able to reach compromises, to understand the different hierarchies of priority held by others, to step back from themselves and try to understand why another person feels or thinks the way they do.

If people are better informed about the enormous number of fallacies circulated on the Internet, they will be less likely to believe truly damaging and endangering falsehoods that they see – and perhaps therefore less likely to, for example, believe that pandemic-inducing viruses are caused by internet-providing technologies. If they have the tools to recognise problematic assertions – scientific or otherwise – they will, if they have learnt to, seek more reliable sources and come to better-informed conclusions.

If people are aware that they naturally seek information that aligns with their world-view, that supports their life choices – then they might be more open to information that confounds their preconceptions. If they acknowledge that they are emotionally driven creatures, they will be less easily manipulated by populism and by advertising. The former helps to protect democracy, the latter helps, indirectly, to protect the environment from the ongoing rise of non-renewable consumption.

It is my belief that the most important and timely introduction to worldwide curricula is critical thinking. With it, populations will be better equipped to protect themselves and their futures, within their national borders and on the global stage. Without prioritising the skills of objectivity and criticality, we leave ourselves open to divisiveness, disinformation, and further environmental damage.

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part two of sequence

Part 2: Berger and Luckmann, Socialisation

Note: this is not intended as a primarily academic piece, but to be more broadly accessible. Thus, the ideas discussed are more general, and citations made only to the work or concept to which the discussion refers.

I want to talk to you about the universe, about reality. Specifically, your own reality, your distinct and personal universe.

In the 1960’s, Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book called The Social Construction of Reality. (London: Allen Lane, 1967). It is a very interesting and insightful, if a little dated, read; and because of the wonders of modern-day technology, it is available in its entirety online, here: http://perflensburg.se/Berger%20social-construction-of-reality.pdf. In this text lies the framework for a fairly well-accepted psychological phenomenon that is, oddly, little discussed in everyday sociological terms: the two-phase theory of socialisation.  

They asserted that the individual human reality is singular and unique, influenced by the specific social experiences of that person. They further stated that this ‘reality’ is constantly reinforced or recalibrated in a continuous and more ‘plastic’ latter phase of perspective-shaping.

They named the early reality-formation stage ‘primary socialisation’. This stage of one’s indoctrination into the social norms, expectations and belief systems of one’s universe provides the foundation on which all else is placed. It occurs in the very first years of life, and is posited as pre-institutional – so for most, this means it is provided by the care-givers.

The latter, continuous phase of ‘universe-reinforcement’ is, unsurprisingly, dubbed ‘secondary socialisation’. This is begun by the institutions in which one begins to expand on their reality – so for the lucky first-world child this means school, possibly clubs, later university, work.

The first phase is considered the most deeply entrenched and, therefore, the most difficult to alter. As Berger and Luckman describe it, the world first experienced and internalised is not imagined as one of a number of possible worlds – it is the only world. The world a person is born into is created for them:

These significant others are imposed upon him. Their definitions of his situation are posited for him as objective reality.[1]

Because this phase constitutes the individual’s first experience of any sort of reality, and forms the basis from which all else must be judged until further life experience takes place, it is more firmly rooted, more deeply entrenched and difficult to alter.

When an individual is exposed to a broader universe, they are at the whims of the institutions specific to their own society, and their reality will to some degree expand in its breadth. Simply the increase in the number of humans to which the individual is exposed will have an inescapable impact on the individual’s conception of the number of worlds, perspectives, that exist. The institutions that follow will, generally, reinforce the society’s particular brand of normal, which will, to some degree, bear some relation to the reality provided initially by the care-givers (in most, but not all, cases).

Why is this of any interest, and how is it relevant to critical thinking?

The concept is not simply a useful way of conceiving how peoples’ perceptions differ from one person to another and one place to another. It also provides us with useful insights into why problematic thinking is maintained in cultures, and why, when important progressive shifts in populations’ ideological frameworks have occurred, many will find it difficult if not impossible to alter their own world-view accordingly. Because of this, it is a fantastic tool. It allows us to recognise where certain ideas have come from, how they have been reinforced, and therefore – most importantly – where necessary, how they might be addressed and changed in a positive way.

Let’s put this into a timely and relevant context. If a person has been brought into a reality in which race is an obvious divider, where the in-group and out-groups (another post I will be writing, to which I will link when it is done) are easily identifiable by the pigmentation of their skin, that person’s initial understanding of the world, before they are able to even process their own decisions about it, is one of clearly defined and visually marked boundaries between people. At this point, it is the fault of the care-givers.

When this person then attends institutions that are perhaps predominantly populated by people with similar – or indeed different – pigmentation from their own, from the predefined, safe in-group, and that institution then – implicitly or explicitly – maintains the constructs created in the early period, the perception of difference, the notions of in- and out- group are reinforced.

Now – if this is an individual’s only understanding of the world, then their perception has been immensely limited by their experience. However, their experience is immensely limited. The brilliant thing about the latter phase of socialisation is that it requires constant reinforcement. If the messages begin to change, if the influences from society begin to explicitly challenge the implications of the former perception-creators – then it is possible for the individual to begin to alter their more surface beliefs. In order to go deeper, however, a recognition needs to be made that there might be problematic aspects to that original universe-conception.

Take a step back. Imagine if someone were to tell you that the very foundations of your reality were false. You would fight that assertion, wouldn’t you? You’d tell them that no, they are wrong, your universe is perfectly legitimate and it is theirs that is at fault. This is a natural defensive reaction that is there to protect your whole concept of self.

However – if a person is mentally ill, they will go into therapy, and often (particularly when following a more psychotherapy-orientated course of treatment, the CBT route acts more on the secondary-reinforcement, and its success might be said to support my assertions here) they will discuss, reassess, and hope to reconfigure their reality so that it is less difficult for them to function, more easy for them to conceive of the more broadly accepted constructs within the social reality that they exist as part of. This, too, is a very difficult process – but it is one that is entered into with an understanding that their current understanding of how to be ‘in the world’ is no longer useful, is problematic, is doing them damage.

Now let us move back to considering perception of race. If a person conceives of hierarchies and divides that exist primarily as a result of their lived experience, they will not generally consider themselves to be ‘mentally ill’ in the sense that the person seeking therapy might, particularly if their universe is populated by like-minded thinkers – which, if they have been brought up under conditions that have created such a perception of ‘other’, it is likely they are. To some degree, their problematic thinking is more similar to the person struggling to cope than to the person who simply understands that any racial hierarchy is a purely social and entirely un-useful construct.

Now – to finish, why is this a useful way of thinking about prejudice or divisive world-views? Because it demonstrates the need for repeated, explicit conditioning. It demonstrates that – like the human whose foundations led them to believe that the only way to function was to, perhaps, starve themselves, or self-medicate, or self-harm – it takes a great deal more than simply showing that person the very clear and inarguable evidence that undermines their beliefs and resultant behaviours. In both sorts of situation time, consistency and repetition are essential to the modification of the person’s universe into something more useful and constructive.

This post not meant to, in any way, be construed as an attempt to legitimise faulty thinking. It is, like all the posts to follow, intended as an overview of an idea that is, outside academic circles, relatively little-known; but one that, in my belief, if an individual is armed with, will make them better able to question the realities they believe in. If they are able to do this, if they are able to stand back and observe the trajectory of their lives in terms of the influences of others’ potentially problematic ideological frameworks, then in my belief they are better equipped to alter, adapt and reconstrue their perception of the world in a way that is more cooperative and true to a broader, more universal, reality.

This also does not apply purely to matters of interpersonal prejudice – but more on that next time.

[1] Berger and Luckmann (Penguin 1991 edition. [online] available from: http://perflensburg.se/Berger%20social-construction-of-reality.pdf retrieved on: 29/07/20), p151.

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Introduction

Hello world!

Welcome to the beginning of my ambitious mission: to spread awareness of the need for critical thinking skills in the general public beyond the limited population who have access to learning such skills (at A Level or university); and to make available and accessible resources and exercises that encourage these skills.

Why?

The world we find ourselves in is ever-more complicated and overwhelming. While most of us have been adapting and finding our feet, other, more insidious progress has been made in the utilisation of our data – leading both to personal convenience and targeted political content. The rise of ‘Fake News’ is only a small aspect of the general problem –  a problem that, unfortunately, is not generally focused on. While targeted advertising might allow us to more easily find a product we desire (although, personally, I am no advocate of excessive consumerism; this post and this site are not about these things), targeted news content and political media has already been demonstrated to have a tangible effect on the beliefs and ideologies of populations.

Furthermore, our divisions are not only reinforced and artificially manufactured in partisan ways. The progress that has been made in equality and justice in the past century can often be undermined by content produced by those (individuals and institutions) who fear that their world-view is at stake. Research demonstrates (for example, Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes (Oxford University Press, 2009)) that, when a person is surrounded by others whose views are more extreme or polarised than their own are more likely to move in the direction of the extreme thinkers. In practice, this might look like a person who has been brought up in an environment that is prejudiced in an entrenched and non-explicit way being exposed to content and voices that argue for, perhaps, white supremacy; choosing to engage with and thus strengthen their beliefs about their perceived social hierarchy.

If we are surrounded – in life and on the Internet – by information that seeks to polarise us, divide us, make us feel safe in an in-group that should ultimately be non-existent (for example social hierarchies), then in order to protect ourselves it is perfectly natural to follow Sunstein’s pattern and align ourselves more closely with that group which has the loudest and most powerful voice. Such behaviours, when they act to further unnecessarily divide us, have no place in the Global Society.