Experience

Forming students for freedom

Jen Cerny
 

Preparing for leadership, citizenship

 

April 30, 2021

Culver’s mission is a powerful statement of our most important goals: educating students for leadership and responsible citizenship. While leadership is central to what we do at Culver, and arguably a more familiar goal, it is significant that responsible citizenship shares equal weight in our mission statement.

How do these two goals converge and complement one another? How is educating for responsible citizenship actually a form of leadership development? In what ways do the skills and demands of each overlap? What does all of this look like on a daily basis in Culver’s citizenship classes? 

One might assume that leadership is a result of personal charisma or having an inspirational vision and that responsible citizenship is just about voting and following the law, and that these things either cannot or need not be “taught.” At Culver, however, we believe that intellectual formation (what we do in the classroom) and character development (what we do everywhere) is the bedrock of both leadership and citizenship.

Education for leadership and citizenship requires that one learn to think as a citizen, and not simply as an individual, and to learn how to think for and with others for the purpose of building a better future. Each of these modes of thought is a different, non-intuitive cognitive “gear” that must be developed, practiced, strengthened. Culver’s citizenship courses are designed to build the intellectual skills and habits of mind in our young people, and to form in them the commitments and capacities needed for leadership and responsible citizenship.   

While it is tempting to imagine that mere intelligence is sufficient to magically cause good thinking and judgment in our actions as leaders and citizens, we have deliberately designed our courses in service of developing these non-intuitive, higher-order ways of thinking because the skills and dispositions of leaders and the responsibilities of citizens converge in so many ways.

 

Honors programs allow students to do a deep dive on their selected topics.

 

Building intellectual character

As a school with a long tradition of service to the nation, we understand that developing these tools of judgment is not only an intellectual exercise, but a moral one. Put differently, Culver’s programming seeks to build the intellectual character of our young leaders and citizens who will use these skills to positively influence the lives of others, which is the central demand of self-government.

To borrow a phrase from Yuval Levin’s “A Time to Build,” we endeavor to form students for freedom. This, for Levin, is the primary function of institutions, which he defines as the “durable forms of our shared lives.” He writes that “we need to be formed for freedom—given the tools of judgment and character and habit to use our freedom responsibly and effectively. Such formation for freedom is a key part of what our institutions are for.” He goes on to write that “institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character.”

Part of forming students for freedom is the development of the mind to meet what Danielle Allen, professor of government and director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, calls the “intellectual demands of democratic citizenship.” This refers to the habits of mind and judgment that make it possible for us to be self-governing, and to collaboratively consider questions of whether the government is meeting its primary responsibility of securing the rights of all. 

This is the foundational work of educating for both leadership and citizenship, and Culver’s boarding environment creates the conditions for doing this because of the “thick” relationships students have with each other here on campus. Their common purpose on sports teams, negotiating with and accommodating others in the dorms and barracks, and working together in the academic setting, and their powerful friendships are the background conditions that make it possible to do this important work in citizenship classrooms. Relying on the underlying strength of those friendships and cooperative relationships, students are perfectly positioned to engage in activities that develop their capacities for leadership and citizenship.   

Citizenship courses in the humanities departments are built to make students “ready” to participate in our nation’s democracy. This, of course, includes building an understanding of the systems and structures of our government and the forces that influence it and an awareness of how we can make contributions and affect change. Many of our newer offerings draw upon the insights and research from social and cognitive psychology and behavioral economics in order to draw our attention to the forces that can obstruct, narrow, or stop our thinking and our inquiry before it is finished. 

This research claims that human judgment, cognition, and behavior are affected by our interaction with environments, situations, and other people, often in ways that we are unaware of. This isn’t to say there’s no room or role for conscious decision-making, but it is instead a humble recognition that humans are more likely to “choose wisely and well” and to “do good and be good” when the environment (physical, social, psychological, moral) provides nudges, incentives, and good paths to follow. Our human frailties and cognitive weaknesses need “exoskeletons” and incentives and practice to be converted into the virtues and strengths we need to live good human lives. To become empowered citizens in our democracy, which requires so much of us in terms of moral imagination, commitment, responsibility, and participation, we need the supports that are most easily provided in a boarding environment. The design of our citizenship courses is one layer of the needed exoskeleton.

What are these cognitive frailties that we keep front of mind as we teach for leadership and citizenship? That humans are likely to believe that which we have merely heard frequently, and that we are more prone to pay attention to things that are negative and that this makes us over-estimate their probability of occurring. That we automatically seek to confirm our intuitions rather than falsify them, and that it is often difficult to even see evidence that suggests that our understanding of something is off. That we change our minds on political topics seldom because these ideas become part of our personal and social identities. That remaining open-minded and actively considering alternative explanations beyond the narratives we prefer is incredibly difficult and that anger and fear, once activated, make it less likely that we will think carefully when evaluating claims. That we assume that we’ve seen and perceived everything and accurately interpreted it all, and that our feelings of confidence and certainty are reliable signals that we are correct. Keeping these cognitive vulnerabilities in mind as we design our courses makes it more likely that students will emerge with the intellectual habits they need to be leaders and responsible citizens. 

Most people are, of course, smart enough to say that one should read widely, consider alternative viewpoints and sources, and to think critically and to think for yourself when it comes to forming judgments about important political issues of the day. However, it’s much harder to do these things at all, much less to do them reliably when it feels so good to get our positions and opinions distilled and delivered to us perfectly formed and comfortable “confirmatory buffet” by our favored voices and sources. 

The less time and thought we spend on the positions and ideas of our political adversaries, the more stupid, dangerous, ignorant, and generally wrong those adversaries seem, the less human they seem. And what’s more, the more wrong and repugnant they seem, the more comfort we take in the ‘rightness’ of our own side’s views. The more time we spend consuming only our side’s information and conversing with only our side’s partisans, the more confident and certain-and sometimes extreme-we become. 

It is obvious, when they’re described, why these predictable human tendencies are a recipe for weakening a nation. If we cease speaking to each other, thinking well of or accurately about each other, and stop working together for a better future, the national project fails. 

At Culver, we recognize and understand these very predictable frailties and tendencies and what forces amplify them, and, using the strength of our institution’s mission, virtues, and values, we design our courses in citizenship in order to build the commitments and capacities required of leaders and responsible citizens capable of meeting the “intellectual demands of democratic citizenship.”

 

Weekly parades develop teamwork.

 

Thinking with others

Central to the design of a course like American Conversations: Citizenship, Civility, and Shared Values is the belief that people learn to think, reason, and to understand problems better not by thinking harder alone but by thinking with others, especially those with whom we disagree. When we understand problems more accurately, we are more likely to identify solutions that will improve outcomes. We need the provocations and questions of others to help us consider what we hadn’t seen, alert us to questionable assumptions, and to offer alternative explanations. As students learn about all of the ways that human cognition is “predictably irrational” and as they learn how difficult it is to determine what is true when so many things feel true, they can use this knowledge to prompt others to think better and each student, in turn, benefits from having their own thinking challenged and strengthened by their interactions with peers and teachers.

Comparative Government, AP Government and Politics and the other courses in the citizenship category of the humanities department leverage these insights, and our work builds on experiences students have elsewhere during their years at Culver. This is how the Culver experience, over time, converts nascent capacities into virtues and habits.

Our efforts are also aided by our collective focus on truth, one of Culver’s values. The reminder of the importance of truth engenders a sense of responsibility to seeking it with a spirit of curiosity and humility. We emphasize that our sense of the world is always incomplete and that for this reason we must always be in conversation with others in order to generate the most insight about it in order to shape it in the most positive ways. 

The truth, even if it is ultimately unattainable, is an important intellectual standard to keep because we can’t make good decisions, achieve lasting progress or solve important problems unless we are working from a sense of the world that is as complete and as accurate as possible. Good results without a foundation of truth would just be luck, and while luck is great, it isn’t much of a strategy for long term success or real progress. Whether the concern is for leadership or citizenship, caring about truth is non-negotiable. These are among the commitments and capacities we nurture at Culver.  

But what do all of these concepts look like in the classroom?  Consider the course introduction and the questions that motivate daily activities:

How can we learn to have responsible, respectful, and civil conversations about ‘hot button’ political topics of the day, and why is this important for strengthening our democracy? How can we get over our own emotional and visceral responses to these issues to be able to trust that those who disagree with us often have the best interests of the nation in mind, just as we do? What are the origins of our own beliefs, and how can we learn to make cognitive space for diverse viewpoints in order to see the logic and value in “their” position when we value our own position so much? How can we learn to have our feelings of confidence and certainty in our own positions thrown into uncomfortable doubt and still maintain mental composure and focus on forming accurate understanding? How can we develop the capacity to think more clearly, accurately, and rationally about these topics and about the people who hold beliefs different from our own so that we can be trusted leaders in the nurturing of our fragile democracy? Why are these skills crucial to being effective leaders and responsible citizens?

American Conversations explores the main ‘fraught’ issues in today’s politics precisely because they have such a distorting effect on our perceptions of our fellow citizens, and because they often cause us to think from a position of fear and anger, rather than trust in our fellow citizens. While it is certainly true that developing an understanding of “how to participate” as a citizen often involves learning how our government was built and how to vote, what feels as urgent today is how our behavior as citizens appears (or doesn’t!) in daily conversations with those around us. Simply put, this class is about developing the ‘daily’ intellectual and conversational habits of citizenship. 

The very existence of this class makes one wonder “what went wrong?”  Why is something as straightforward as conversation something that needs a course dedicated to it?

In this historical moment, it seems as though the conditions of democracy are becoming tenuous. Social trust is at low levels. Fear, anger, rage, indignation, and contempt seem to be the defining political emotions of the day. Political loyalty and a winner-take-all mentality rather than a commitment to truth and securing rights for all often seems to govern our thinking and has wounded our politics which, properly understood, is the way that we solve common problems in a democracy.

Such conditions make cooperation, negotiation, accommodation, or even seeing that we share values with those on the ‘other side’ difficult. Our intuitions and impressions about “them” make us feel like conversation is pointless, and that compromise is defeat.     

The most straightforward way to begin such explorations into the minds of political others is by assuming that we actually share many values. Beginning from such a modest position, we can then work to seek and see the value and insight in the thinking from the liberal to the conservative to the libertarian. For example, how many typical political positions, particularly on social issues, could be seen differently if we imagined that they were fundamentally ‘about’ valuing life or freedom?  Once we appreciate that both sides share these values but that they manifest differently, we see avenues for cooperation because now we have reasons for mutual respect.

 

Culver students attended the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

 

Conversations grounded in history

A conversation-intensive class grounded in the history of some of the most contested ideas in American politics, we learn about the full spectrum of politicized positions on topics including abortion, guns, immigration, policing, racism, and LGBTQ rights in order to appreciate the values, understandings, beliefs, assumptions, and forces that create them as we also learn how these issues have become “politicized” to whip up the feelings that motivate many to vote. We consider the social and national consequences of these calculated political strategies that increase divisiveness, mistrust, and tribalism. 

Recognizing that our human default tendency is to let the “emotional tail wag the rational dog” as Jonathan Haidt helpfully says, we build the patience and the mental strength it takes to overcome powerful feelings in order to engage intellectually rather than just emotionally or politically with these questions. 

Clearly, all of this can be really hard. It can feel really unpleasant and uncomfortable. Learning often means slowing down, doubting, having our confidence shaken, and feeling our certainty dissolve.   

But school isn’t about intellectual comfort any more than sports is about physical comfort. School is about developing the mental strengths and skills we need to do the work, and the judgment we need to be able to get closer to the truth. Doing this not only makes us better people, but it makes us better citizens and leaders. This strengthens a nation, even as it strengthens individuals.

Culver’s history, academic model, student-life structure, and status as the premier independent school in the Midwest, make it uniquely qualified to lead the nation in forming responsible citizens, and, moreover, forming students for the requirements of self-government as a free people.

Jen Cerny is a Master Instructor who joined Culver’s Humanities Department in August 2000.

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