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Askwith Education Forum

Ethical Education in Fractious Times

Political philosopher Michael Sandel on the power of technology to repair a fractured civic dialogue.

With the midterm elections looming, political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael Sandel took the stage at the Askwith Forums last week to talk about what civic engagement and civic learning should look like for today’s young people, who have to contend with the forces of social media, globalization, and widening educational inequality. Dean Bridget Terry Long introduced Sandel and provided a framework for the talk, asking the central question: How do educators have conversations about values in divided and hostile times?

“We gather at a time when politics [are] polarized and fractious,” Sandel said in his opening statement. “It seems we’ve lost the ability to reason together, to argue together with civility about big questions that matter, including, and especially, questions about ethics and values.”

While there is certainly no absence of contentious issues like immigration policy and sexual harassment, most attempts to discuss and work through the underlying philosophical problems embedded in these topics turn into what Sandel dubs “ideological food fights.” Public discourse on issues that matter becomes a shouting match, a flinging of ideas, with neither side actually listening to the reasoning of the other.

The polarized political climate produces only further fractions and frustrations among citizens. Social media plays a role as well. “[Social media platforms]…are echo chambers of tweets and taunts and sometimes hate. Social media too often lends itself more to rude epithets than to argument,” Sandel said. Yet this is the world students inhabit today — one governed by forces of markets and media and not necessarily by reason. As such, it is more pressing than ever that civic education is shaped and remolded to fill these dialogic vacuums.

“The civic education we need now is, above all, an education in reasoning and arguing about big ethical questions that matter: justice, the common good, what it means to be a citizen,” said Sandel. “And to do so with passion and conviction but also at the same time with civility and mutual respect.”

Rather than get mired in the chaos of technology and social media, Sandel feels education needs to harness these forces and use them to promote and foster civic dialogue. Technology can provide a platform for discourse, instead of impeding it. As a professor, Sandel has advocated for free access to the Harvard classroom for people all over the world. He has posted the lectures from his popular Harvard College course, Justice, and invited viewers to watch for free. He has also experimented with notions of a global classroom on his BBC radio show, The Global Philosopher.

Sandel acknowledges the limits of existing technology and the validity of questions about whether it’s possible to carry out meaningful argument over large distances. But with technological advancements, he is hopeful that these conversations will soon be able to permeate public life, “just as Socrates connected philosophy to the world,” said Sandel with a smile. He hopes to find ways to replicate peer-to-peer interactions to make these online experiences more tangible — by preserving background noise, allowing virtual audiences to read the reactions of others, and preserving the power of laughter in conversations.

Of course, the issue of making a Harvard education into a public good is not without its critics. But Sandel has found the reaches of his online learning to be extensive. In his travels to Brazil, for instance, Sandel found himself in one of the city’s favelas, a neighborhood marked by violence but also a place where activists were trying to grow a new community.

“We had a discussion about justice and injustice and violence. And some of them had watched [the online course] — and that they’re watching this in a favela where they’re struggling to figure out what citizenship means to them, isn’t that worth something for big institutions like this one? ... Why shouldn’t affluent universities like this one contribute to making those kinds of experiences possible?” 

Of course, it is not up to universities alone to produce civic dialogues. Educators, too, must be called to take part in this practice. “The discussion doesn’t happen by accident. It never does,” said Sandel. “It requires some community and some leaders in that community to be … the provocateurs. And I think the title of that role, broadly, is citizen. I mean that’s what citizens should be doing.”

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