Every project arises out of a set of assumptions. Usually they are left unstated. I have done my best to identify those behind the PostPandemic Curriculum Project and open them for your scrutiny.
- Democracies depend on citizens who are able to engage in respectful conversations and arrive at a generally acceptable consensus. To hold their governments accountable, citizens in a society that relies on advanced technologies must be able to understand, and participate in, discussions of public policy related to the consequences of those technologies.
- Communication is imperfect. All parties in a conversation share responsibility to minimize the number and severity of the inevitable misunderstandings. A lack of understanding inevitably leads to some combination of indifference, confusion, mistrust, and/or hostility. Even people with serious disagreements can have useful conversations if each: assumes the other person is of reasonable goodwill; has a basic familiarity with the other’s knowledge, assumptions, and concepts; takes care to avoid language that the other person is likely to misinterpret. This version of Hanlon’s Razor is worth considering:
Don’t assume malice, it might be stupidity
⇒ Don’t assume stupidity, it might be ignorance
⇒ Don’t assume ignorance, it might be forgivable error
⇒ Don’t assume error, it might be sloppy communication
⇒ Don’t assume miscommunication, it might be your lack of understanding
⇒ Therefore, don’t assume malice as your first impulse.
Be charitable. Take the opportunity to listen. Take the opportunity to better explain your position. Only afterwards, once you’ve explored and rejected ignorance and stupidity, error and sloppy speech, and gaps in your understanding, should you conclude that the other person is behaving with malice.
- “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clarke). Only a magician can manage or even make sense of magic. When faced with technologies that seem so mysterious that we don’t even try to understand them, we aren’t able to meaningfully discuss their effects on our society or our lives . What we can’t meaningfully discuss, we have no hope of controlling. And given the power that these technologies have to shape our world and our future, understanding them is imperative. There is a large and growing gap of knowledge, concepts, and language between specialists and non-specialists. As disciplines become increasingly narrow, the ideas explored by those at the leading edge of each discipline become increasingly divorced from those used by non-experts, and their language becomes foreign to non-experts. If communication is to be possible, experts must learn to express themselves in commonly understandable language. One the other hand, it is unrealistic to make the experts do all the work. Non-experts, with the help of our schools, must make an effort to gain a basic understanding of the core concepts of the disciplines involved if they are going to successfully engage in productive public policy discussions.
- Humans tend to be tribal. As a society becomes less uniform and there is less agreement on “standard” beliefs and behaviours, the number of commonly agreed-upon assumptions decreases. Similar words start to take on different connotations (eg. law and order, justice, privilege). Unfamiliar words and ideas that are inadvertently offensive to other groups gain traction. Novel behaviours take hold. As this happens, each of us comes to see ourselves as a member of various groups with whom they share an identity (eg. ancestry, religion, skin-colour, sports team), and we give members of our groups the benefit of the doubt that we deny to outsiders. Rifts build and harden as we start to see fellow citizens as belonging to another, sometimes hostile, “tribe” with little in common. But tendency is not destiny. With deliberate effort we can soften our allegiance to our chosen groups, and extend our good-will to those outside our groups..
- Humans resist change. “Old habits die hard.” Change requires effort and involves risk. Most of us prefer to get along with those around us, and altering our behaviour or adopting new ideas can generate discomfort, and sometimes conflict, with friends, family, and others who continue to embrace and enjoy the “old” ways.
- Concepts and skills are more easily introduced to children than to adults. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” “Give me a child until seven, and I will show you the adult.” (Aristotle). Seven is an arbitrary cut-off; teenagers are remarkably open to new ideas as their brain structures undergo dramatic change following puberty. But the idea is clear – early influences are critically important in shaping a person. Due to spurts of brain development our experiences both in early childhood and in the decade after puberty have a profound effect on our personalities and beliefs throughout our lives.
- Parents are a child’s “first teachers”, but mustn’t be a child’s only teachers. Parents, liberal or conservative, believer or skeptic, Asian or African or North American, transmit to their children an identity, set of beliefs, and ways of making sense of the world. But a diverse accountable democracy responsive to a changing world needs citizens who can see beyond the ideas of their parents. One purpose of a PostPandemic Curriculum is to help future citizens respond to the challenges that confront them with fresh eyes. Part of this is fostering a respectful and knowledgeable appreciation of the cultures and beliefs of fellow citizens from different backgrounds.
- Relying on our senses and memory will often lead us astray. The world is much much more complex than we are equipped to deal with. Our senses can’t take in all the events around us (eg. we can’t hear the sounds of bats or see the ultra-violet markings on flowers that help attract pollinators). Our brains can’t even take in everything that we can sense – there is just too much going on – or even reliably remember everything that we take in.
- And we can’t trust our intuition either. Intuition is needed if we are to avoid being paralyzed by obsessive over-thinking. Our brains have evolved to use short-cuts that get pretty close to reality much of the time. These short-cuts work much of the time, especially when we are have experience dealing with similar situations in the past. But these same short-cuts leave us very vulnerable to cognitive distortions that lead us to be over-confident in our judgement and make mistakes, especially when faced with a novel circumstances. Being fooled by a magician is a source of pleasure, but being mislead by a con-artist can be very harmful. Ignoring a threat that is too slow, too subtle, or too rare to be caught by our short-cut intuitions can be truly disastrous. And then there is the human tendency to react as if other people embody our internal stereotype of the group that we see them as belonging to, rather than as a complex individual with unique traits, skills, and flaws.
My perspective on democracy and schooling reflects my experiences as a Canadian raised in Toronto and educated in Public schools. While my thoughts on the need for a PostPandemic Curriculum are grounded in these local circumstances, similar circumstances seem also to exist elsewhere, most particularly in areas shaped by the political and educational institutions of colonial Britain.