How a deep education can help overcome political division

What has polarization to do with philosophy? Philosophy is, in the best of its manifestations, the search for understanding and wisdom growing out of our desires for the true and the good. It is the fruit of our inclination to seek to make sense of things, both as a satisfying good in itself and as a basis for direction in life. There is nothing partisan about it; it is a peak possibility of our shared human nature. It often may seem aloft, removed from the contentions—especially those bitter ones—that are associated with polarization. Polarization, on the other hand, is a political, social and cultural phenomenon that tears at and weakens our communities from families and churches to local, state and national communities. It unduly separates us from one another.

In recent years commentators across the political spectrum have highlighted and lamented the depth of this nation’s political and even cultural polarization. That we have “culture wars” is a clear indication that something profound is entailed. Nearly all such coPmmentators reveal an awareness of the fact that this polarization did not begin with the last presidential election. Concern over polarization in our national life and analyses of its nature go back more than a generation. One might justly say that the 2016 presidential election brought out more clearly and fully what had long been simmering beneath the surface.

Many of us want––almost desperately––our constitutional republic to work, and not merely survive, in this polarized atmosphere. It has been for some time the great hope of the modern world. We hear voices of good people emphasizing civility in our discourse and a restoration of faith in our democracy. We also increasingly realize something is wanting in those calls, that they are not working, and that in some way they reflect a failure to understand the nature and the depth of our division. 

We must also notice that our problem is not limited to our shores. A critical factor in this polarization is a worldwide-felt sense on one side of the divide that the voices from that sector are not sought and clearly are not heard in our leading media outlets, our public forums and even our universities, places where we conduct our common business and prepare our citizens for the public business of the future. So here I tip my hand. I reject that nice pleasant balancing view that polarization is caused by failures across the political spectrum, “We are all at fault.” 

Of course, mainstream analyses are hardly so benign as that. More commonly it is said or implied that polarization is caused by the hopeless selfishness and ignorance of those on the conservative side. I even more vigorously reject that as a partisan diagnosis which is self-righteously self-serving for the dominant liberal elite. It masks the use of our institutions to exclude those voices that challenge the dominant orthodoxies and their narrative of placing themselves on the right side of history and of relegating their challengers to the status of obstacles to progress. The seeds of our polarization are planted in our universities when classes and public discussions do not represent well all relevant views, not to speak of frequent instances of refusing to listen to others and even of using all manner and means to silence differing views and close down any debate. Those actions contribute to our locking down into polarized camps.

This is not to deny that on both sides of the divide there are real offenders against civility and against positive steps to heal our wounds. They practice the arts that deepen polarization and draw more people into its vicious division: the art of convenient omission of relevant facts, the art of misstatement and caricature of other views and the art of demonization of the opposition. Civility, meaning basic courtesy rooted in our respect for other humans and reflected in a practiced capacity to listen and a humility in our own convictions, is always the right way, at least the right way to begin conversations and all human interactions. Without civility our communities of all sorts will strain to be effective and to stay together. Without civility we put ourselves ever on the edge of the slide to violence, leaving our communities more deeply fractured, perhaps irretrievably so, and likely for generations to follow. We have seen this pattern in other places in the world, and we know its toll in human life and suffering is great.

Note the phrase used just above, “at least the right way to begin conversations and all human interactions.”  It is a reminder that the good faith and openness characteristic of civility can be tested at times, and we can be pulled into partisanship, suspicious of others and trusting especially those that we see joining us against a common opponent’s agenda. In a society where there is a freedom to contend for how politics will go, it is hardly unreasonable or wrong to become a person of party; yet that is often the first step toward polarization. Let us sketch one instance of such an understandable slide, and this can help open the door to truly understanding the polarization of our time. Consider the experience of evidence that most of the people who support the supposed right to an abortion also support efforts to make it difficult to attend schools where religious education takes place, that they regularly misstate the situation regarding vouchers, that they deny there is any reality to the threat to religious liberty in advancing state programs that insist religion has no place, and that they advance a theory of the judiciary that largely frees judges from the literal words of the Constitution. It also becomes evident or leaks out that the same group widely holds ordinary people as well as practicing Catholics in contempt. How then might one oppose such a group except by joining with others who work in a mutual effort against such a threat!

Can anything be done about our destructive polarization? Democracy might not have the capacity to overcome deep divisions. To use slavery as an example, an awful war––not democracy––resolved the issue. Indeed, as Frank Knight, an astute economic and political theorist, once observed: democracy works best when there is fundamentally nothing important to decide. Sensible participant-observers in democracy such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Winston Churchill have sought to defend democracy while tempering our expectations for it. Niebuhr’s classic observation was that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”  Churchill caught our attention with a comparative observation that “democracy is the worst form of government on earth except for all the others tried.”

What can be done?  Where to begin? Where and how to find our common ground? “More education” is ever the panacea for our problems, often suggested across the political spectrum and usually meaning that they wish the other side were more educated. More education is called for while the nature of that education is seldom indicated. Without a foundation or an appropriate vision, it is easy then for government, corporate and educational leaders to turn that call into more dollars and curricular space for the subjects that seem to advance our prosperity, yet at the same time drive us into separate specialized cells in universities and in society in general. 

Consider, however, a direction that can only be pointed to and sketched here: a philosophical education that proceeds from our common human experience and problems. It takes the form of thinking through these experiences and problems, usually with others in small groups and with the assist of the best past interpreters of these significant matters. This type of education would try to capture the Aristotelian spirit of wonder at all facets of the reality around us and the Socratic spirit of our neediness for understanding what is just, what is truly good, how beings like us find happiness. 

This education does not necessarily reside in being a philosophy major. It is not to be confused with ideology, for it is not so closed and absolute, yet it leads to working conclusions about first principles and every important topic. It may need the support and gift of faith for firmness in its findings. The inquiry that this education fosters is more a way of life than a body of knowledge. It does come to consider, as political philosophy, such concepts as equality, justice, liberty and the very social dimension of human beings. It comes, in other words, into the territory where polarization is most likely to infect us. It seeks to get beneath the competing narratives shaping not only our overall political views but also, and even, our sense of what is probably true or “factual.”  

This type of philosophical education would—as often in the present and past—probably be limited to relatively few, but if these are leaders in the various sectors of society, the practices and habits of such philosophical inquiries could spread more widely among the citizens of our republic. Perhaps this mode of education would help us find ways to discuss our fundamental differences while allowing us to proceed as one community. One thoughtful and experienced educator has recently written about how the seminar experience in fact provides safe spaces as well as free speech. She reminds us that there are some educational practices and programs that already show us on a small scale the promise of philosophical education. There are places where significant conversation builds friendship. Imagine safe spaces for practicing our love of the true and the good; that is, safe and conducive spaces for conversation, literally a turning over, together, of our and others’ reflections on what is true and good and why it is so. This may be our best, if not our only way, to contain the damage of polarization and to begin to rebuild our common discourse and our communities.

Walter Nicgorski is a professor emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at Walter.J.Nicgorski.1@nd.edu