Dialogue, Higher Education

Either/Or Thinking

Election day has come and gone, and as we continue to imagine the impact of the results, I am struck by the problem of the red vs. blue frame.  Last Tuesday, and every day since, numerous media outlets presented red and blue maps to represent broad swaths of voting patterns, ostensibly characterizing the attitudes of an entire state.  We know this red or blue frame isn’t quite right. The lived experience of our attitudes is far more complex than this simple either red or blue suggests.

General Semantics calls this either/or thinking a two-valued orientation.  Two-valued orientations focus on the extremes of arguments, leaving little room for dialogue because they specifically exclude all the ambiguities in the middle. Two-valued orientation is great for dramatic effect and defining clear battle lines, but it isn’t very helpful when trying to solve real problems. If education is meant to help us solve real problems, and I think it is, then we need to move past the this two-valued stalemate.

One way to get beyond or between the poles of an argument is with another general semantics concept called an abstraction ladder.  Abstraction ladders allow us to move to higher and lower levels of specificity revealing inclusion and exclusion of ideas at each level. For example:

  • Education (most abstract)
  • Higher Education
  • Public Higher Education
  • WCSU (least abstract).

Large statements about education are useful when we want to discuss a broadly educated citizenry, but less so when we want to focus on access to affordable post-secondary degrees.  Defining levels of abstraction can help us clarify the topic under discussion and refine our arguments.  It can also help undermine our either/or tendencies by illuminating the larger and smaller categories of our concepts and how they may be intertwined.

Our political information environments frequently force us into two-valued thinking. In an effort to predict (or drive) voter behavior, the salient issues of a particular election cycle are lumped into red and blue.

  • Gun control 
  • Pro-business
  • Affordable Healthcare 
  • Strong military 
  • Pro-environment 

But none of these issues are red or blue. These categories reduce to nonsense much larger and complicated discussions about how to achieve safety and security for all people.  Shown under the safety and security heading, we might find a gun control advocate who hunts, a veteran for affordable healthcare, or an entrepreneur promoting environmentally responsible energy solutionsWe know this is true. It is the lived experience of talking with our neighbors every day.

Red and Blue are convenient tropes for storytelling, and they frequently make it appear that we have more divisions than common ground.  And when we add the power of selective exposure, made infinitely possible through both social media and streaming television programming, those tropes become nearly insurmountable.  They don’t shape dialogue, they stop it.

So, what can those of us who work in education do to help our students and ourselves resist the two-valued orientations of election cycles and embrace concepts like abstraction ladders as a tool to see connections between attitudes and ideas that are not so easily summarized as red or blue?

As Thomas Jefferson noted, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”  I will add that education must serve as an antidote to either/or thinking and foster the dialogue necessary for informed decisions about complex questions. It’s a challenge but here’s where I’d like to start.

  • Education should prepare people to make informed decisions about complex questions. (most abstract)
  • Higher education should focus on questioning assumptions and evidence in all disciplines.
  • Public higher education should include demonstrated ability to describe the structure of arguments as a core learning outcome.
  • Western Connecticut State University should include learning opportunities in all Critical Thinking classes that require students to grapple with more than two-sides to a story, question, or debate. (least abstract)

If we meet the challenge, then perhaps we can stop talking about red and blue maps and work to address real problems like water supplies, food production, or access to education for all.

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