Scaffolding Suspension of Belief as a Means to Intellectual and Political Empathy

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Brian Judge, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018

Challenge: Introduction to Political Theory is either the beginning or the end of students’ engagement with political theory at Cal: interested students may go on to enroll in further political science courses, but (statistically speaking) many will stop after the introduction. My goal as a GSI is to serve as a guide for students exploring the academic study of politics, but also—and perhaps more importantly—to cultivate the habits and qualities necessary for good democratic citizenship. These qualities include: openness to new ideas, intellectual empathy for those one disagrees with, and an ability to convey one’s position clearly and rigorously. The course wrestles with questions and problems at the core of many contemporary political debates. In initial discussion sections, I quickly noted that many engaged, outspoken, and politically passionate students could tend towards factionalism or an unwillingness to engage with potentially opposing ideas. How could I encourage students to engage with new theories and arguments seemingly opposed to their own deeply held convictions?

Solution: The question implicit in many early (often outraged) student comments was, “How could anyone believe this?!” My intervention was simply to draw out this implicit skepticism and build upon it by encouraging students to supply an answer. I began sections by asking: “Why might someone believe this?” I found that this particular phrasing invites a kind of analytic distance that enables students to temporarily step outside their own perspective and beliefs in order to imagine the world through another’s eyes. In being asked to articulate the underlying logic, they began to take the position more seriously as a theory rather than as a statement of narrow partisanship. Why might Marx think that purely formal rights are insufficient? Why might Milton Friedman see the ponderousness of the state as a potential threat to its citizens? Why might Socrates choose to drink hemlock rather than disobey the laws of his city? The goal is to have students take political theories seemingly opposed to their own convictions more seriously by giving the theorist the benefit of the doubt and supplying the necessary context. Not all disagreements reflect one side’s lack of imagination or moral fiber; if we treat opposing arguments with respect, we often find a serious and thoughtful elaboration of one side of a complex political debate. This exercise, of course, doesn’t preclude disagreement, but the hope is to ground it in a richer appreciation of the theoretical stakes and terrain.

Assessment: I knew this intervention was working when students began framing their reading responses in terms of this basic question without my explicit prompting: for example, they would begin with a historical contextualization or by elaborating upon the existing theories against which a particular theorist was articulating himself at the time. They were able to treat the texts less as expressions of a narrow orthodoxy, and more as an opening up of a rich and complex theoretical terrain for further exploration. I saw students begin to pause more over conflicts and ambiguities that they might have previously missed or dismissed. By the end of term, I witnessed the avowed Marxist pause in discussion to consider Locke’s argument for the virtues of limited government and the avowed free market libertarian articulate the motivations underpinning communitarian concepts of justice. Whether or not my students advance to further study in political theory, I believe they will carry forth these intellectual habits necessary for good democratic citizenship. “Why might someone believe this?” is a question that underpins intellectual empathy both in the classroom and in everyday political discourse.