The Persistent Myth of Insurmountable Tribalism Will Kill Us All

New Knight Foundation-supported study out about college students which very much confirms what we see in classrooms. Students:

  • feel overwhelmed by the “firehose of news”
  • feel unequipped to sort through that news
  • want to read and share truthful accounts
  • believe in journalistic principles of accuracy and verification
  • but fall back on cynicism as a strategy, believing far more news to be fake or spun than really is

All this is exactly what we see in classrooms. Every class might have one or two hardcore partisans, but the vast majority of students feel OVERWHELMED. They want to do the right thing, but it seems impossibly time-intensive and complex.

What we find in this environment is that some students initially talk like hardcore partisans when looking at prompts, before they have the skills to navigate the overload. But that’s because the alternative to reacting tribally is an investigation they imagine is going to take them an afternoon. Once they have the skills, that tendency slips away. Here’s the sort of answers we’re getting after one week of skills training when a student looks at a story of declining arctic ice from the National Snow & Ice Data Center (an excellent source, BTW):

“This site appears trustworthy. I searched Google news and found it is cited by multiple credible sources including bigger weather news sites. I also used the “Just add Wikipedia” trick as a way to investigate funding and found that it is partially funded by the US through NASA, which shows there are probably experts there.”

“It’s good, they’ve been around forever and are affiliated with other research facilities like University of Colorado.”

(amalgamation of several student responses to protect student privacy).

We do enough of these in class that we can see they get to this point in less than 60 seconds for many tasks. If the habits hold, when someone tries to pull them slowly into post-truth land, they’ll have a natural resistance. Maybe enough to avoid the first steps down that slippery slope.

You know what I don’t see in my classes — in a Republican district, where a nontrivial number of students don’t believe in climate change? Any reaction of the sort that you “can’t trust the site because declining sea ice and climate change is a myth.” Not one.

It’s not just a Republican thing. We find the same thing with prompts for liberal hot-button issues on GMOs. Students — many of whom are very committed to “natural” products and lifestyles — make accurate assessments of the lack of credibility of sites supporting their opinions. They believe this stuff, maybe, but admit the given site is not a good source.

Now you might think that all the students (all of them!) are somehow secretly hiding their tribalism and saying what they know they need to say to get approval — even though none of our assignments are graded on anything but participation. If you haven’t taught a class before, maybe that sounds plausible to you — that all the students have simultaneously decided to hide their secret opinions and somehow mimic expert competence instead while not believing in it.

If you have taught a class before I know you are doubled over laughing at that idea. Good teachers know when students are faking it, or going through motions with secret resentment. That’s not what we see in our classes. We see excitement with the new skills, and above all RELIEF. You can see the great weight being lifted as the students learn 60-second fact-checks. I came in once to one section I taught and forgot to go over the homework, and the students were crushed. When I realized I had skipped it and went back to it, they lit up. They wanted to show off their new skills.

Not just the Republicans. Not just the Democrats. The students, all of them.

And yet everywhere I present to ADULTS, there are people that tell me these methods won’t work, because tribalism-yadda-yadda-yadda. They’ve usually never taught this stuff, certainly not this way. But they are convinced of tribalism as a fundamental truth, an intractable problem. They’ve taken it on faith that — unlike almost anything else in human life — tribalism is not one of many factors governing human behavior, but a sort of absolute veto that obliterates anything you throw against it, a dispositional antimatter.

Yep. Academics and bureaucrats can be fiercely tribalistic about the insurmountably of tribalism.

To be honest, believing our students just don’t want to know the truth is the professional corollary to the cynicism we see students come in with about news media. Cynicism may not provide comfort, but it provides absolution. In this world, at this particular moment, that may feel like the best possible deal you’re going to be able to cut. I get it.

But it’s also a waste of the frustrated idealism of our students. I don’t know where our students will be in ten years or what they will believe. I know that views do harden, even over the course of college. But they come to us, right now, wanting to do better at this, feeling guilty that they’re not, overwhelmed by the effort to close that gap. The fact that we don’t take advantage of that desire, that class by class we are letting this urge of students to do better wither on the vine so that they can later be groomed and radicalized by God knows who — that is something we will all come to regret, no matter which tribe we belong to. A massive, massive waste of human desire and potential in the face of looming catastrophe.

The report tells us the students would like to do better. The students in our classes learn to do better, and enjoy doing better. I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.


Added 10/17: Someone below asked whether I could link to these skills we teach. Sure. The two best starting points are this set of four three-minute videos from Civix, and the textbook. Teachers can find other teaching resources — including importable online activities — here.

4 thoughts on “The Persistent Myth of Insurmountable Tribalism Will Kill Us All

  1. Don’t change a word.

    So many vital moments here, but this one especially: “Cynicism may not provide comfort, but it provides absolution.”

    Yep. It’s a mighty cold carrion comfort, and it’s a mighty cheap and self-congratulatory absolution. I find academia to be rife with self-redeeming cynics, but I agree wholeheartedly: students still think we can build a better world, and they strongly suspect we have to do it together.

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