by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
We can trace the current level of political polarization to multiple sources, but, whatever the causes, we could arguably reduce polarization by increasing our ability to see issues from perspectives other than our own. Given its potential to bridge divides, nurturing this ability should be a high priority. And yet, this is neglected in one of the places where it could do the most good: the college classroom.
Our universities are failing students by teaching them that there’s only one right way to understand our most vexing inequalities and social problems. This undoubtedly disproportionately affects students focusing their studies in the social sciences, but the near universality of cross-disciplinary general-education requirements (such that many students, regardless of their area of study, are required to take courses in the social sciences) suggests that almost no student is immune.
In sociology, for instance, we teach students about a wide range of social disparities. This entails conversations about the causes of those differences. Yet we do students an enormous disservice teaching them only about the possible structural causes of those disparities — aspects we can blame on the “system” or on “institutions.” Students learn, for example, that the gender pay gap is due to systemic labor-market discrimination against women and a devaluation of women’s work. These are likely contributing factors. But when pressed on the topic, most students can’t name a single additional factor that might contribute to the wage difference (such as variation between the sexes in job preferences or priorities).