Does College Make Us Less Equipped to Change the World?

In this great meritocracy of ours, those of us who’ve made it through college are encouraged to feel like we’re something special. And it’s no doubt true that a university education confers certain intellectual (if not always economic) advantages. By the time you’re handed your BA or BS, you’ve sharpened your critical thinking skills; have learned to see big pictures; can write a decent essay on command; don’t feel lost in a museum, library or concert hall; and might even know enough of a second language to navigate the subway and get yourself to the nearest hostel. Furthermore: it’s called “liberal education” these days because generally, the more of it you have, the more liberal you tend to be.

All good and worthy stuff. But the more time I spend around political progressives, the more convinced I am that when it comes to doing good retail politics, our fancy educations get in the way almost as often as they help us. Specifically, there are things we picked up back at the Old U — biases, preferences, habits of mind — that are so reflexive we long ago lost any awareness of them, but that we’re constantly tripping over whenever we try to present our ideas to the rest of the country.

It sounds weird and counterintuitive, but in my work with progressive organizations, I’ve noticed some specific ways in which the kind of thinking we learned in our classrooms actually makes us kinda dumb politically. Here are a few places college grads often seem to get led astray by their own educations.

Originality doesn’t matter

In the academy, original thought that adds to the body of human knowledge is the most prized commodity there is. That, and only that, is what they hand out PhDs for. It’s also what gets you an A in most classrooms. Your professor doesn’t want warmed-over ideas pulled from the book or your classmates or the kids back at the dorm. She wants you to think for yourself — to exercise your brain, do some original analysis and synthesis, and come up with some fresh insights on the subject. Cribbing ideas from somewhere else is lazy at best; at worst, it’s plagiarism and it’ll get you kicked out of school.

After college, we go forth and become knowledge workers, usually in fields where our ability to think independently is our chief economic asset. Present us with a new idea, and we’ll take it apart, put it back together, moosh it up with other things we know, and look for a way to make it our own. Since that’s what we’ve always been rewarded for, that’s what we always do.

In politics, though, there are times when originality isn’t an asset. In fact, it can sometimes be an liability. Two examples follow, though there are plenty of others (and you’ll probably start noticing them now that I’ve pointed them out).

First, Americans like their politicians to re-affirm comfortable old truths far more than they appreciate being hit with new ideas. (And the newer and more radical an idea is, the more important it is to swaddle it thickly in old truths.) A politician who flies too far forward of the great mass of public opinion risks being seen as flaky, flighty, and generally untrustworthy. In our interactions with family and friends, a lot of us end up in the same position — because of our intellectual training, we’re the smart one who’s thinking so far ahead, so fast, that everybody else feels left behind and overwhelmed. On both the personal and national levels, this mismatch leaves people on both sides feeling uncomfortable and untrusting. Since trust is the basic currency of politics, it’s far more important for us to build trust with people than it is to be original (or even right).

Second, most progressives admire the tremendous message discipline we see coming from the conservative side. They have a handful of designated thinkers who figure out what the message of the day is, and how to frame that message within the larger conservative story. Everybody gets the memo (quite literally) — and then everybody goes forth and tells the same story, using the same language. And they are not afraid to repeat themselves, over and over and over, for as long as it takes. The result is what David Brock called “The Mighty Wurlitzer” — the overwhelming wall of sound that’s been reverberating with the same consistent message for 30 years. Their willingness to repeat and echo themselves endlessly enabled them to overwhelm the country’s political atmosphere. Until very recently, the noise was so overwhelming it was almost impossible for progressive voices to be heard through the din.

We’re in awe of this because we can’t do it. And the biggest reason we can’t do it is because this originality imperative runs so deep in our bones. Most of us would gag before we’d repeat somebody else’s talking points verbatim. (Somewhere in the back of our minds, there’s still a professor gravely castigating our lazy thinking and threatening to flunk us.) We still need to take every new idea we’re given — even ideas that have been tested and tried by people far more expert than we are, and that work perfectly without any further modification — and moosh ‘em around in our heads to make them our own. And we’re easily bored by things we’ve heard before — can’t you find another way to say it?

We need to get over this. Nobody will flunk you if you repeat a great argument word-for-word (though giving credit is always nice, if you can manage it). Nobody cares if that new tactic you’re using was stolen wholesale from Occupy Springfield. Out here in the real world, plagiarism isn’t a crime. In fact, the willingness to get on the same page — and then stay there, singing the same tune over and over for as long as it takes — is absolutely essential if we ever hope to get and keep control of the national discourse.

Grab ’em by the guts

One of the things our professors beat into our little puddin-heads back at the U was that appeals to personal experience or emotion are unwelcome in classroom arguments. What you feel passionately in your heart, what you believe to be a moral imperative, or what you’ve been through in your own life simply don’t qualify as evidence in the classroom. The rules are clear: Emotion is out of bounds. Experience is merely anecdote. You must argue from the facts; and those facts must come from well-executed research or well-regarded authorities. If you can’t document it in a footnote, it has no place in your classroom debate or thesis paper.

This habit has done us a lot of damage. It’s the main reason progressives are known for their wonky appeals to self-interest. Most of us remember (with a cringing, involuntary flinch), the long line of liberal candidates who’ve tried to enchant the public to their side with long, lovingly detailed descriptions of their 10-point policy initiatives. We assume the voting public thinks the way our professors did — that they’ll be impressed by our command of the facts, and our well-reasoned arguments for why things should be a certain way. And so we’ve been very confused when the conservatives, who seldom offer anything like a real-world, evidence-based policy agenda, still beat our pants off.

Most of us are now coming around to the realization that our university-cultivated passion for evidence-based argument is a political liability we need to abandon. It’s still essential to making good policy (in fact, we should insist even more loudly on evidence-based policy-making than we do); but when it comes to talking to the public, they’ve made it very clear they’re not interested. They want emotional stories that humanize our ideas. They want to hear about the things we value most deeply. They want to understand the boundaries of our moral universe — what we think is right and wrong, what we’re willing to tolerate, and what we’re willing to fight for. They want good storytelling — complete with heroes, quests, threats, and villains to defeat — that rocks them down to their toes.

This kind of talk is more appropriate to a church pulpit or a campfire than it is to a classroom. (And it’s no accident that our best practitioners of this kind of speechifying — Dr. King, the Kennedys, Obama — learned their craft in church.) If we really want to move the country, we need to speak to them in ways that actually move their souls. And we didn’t learn to do that in college.

Don’t overwhelm people with facts

A corollary to the above argument is our naive belief that the more facts you can marshal in support of your argument, the more persuasive the argument will be. This works great in a term paper — gotta get those 5,000 words written somehow — but it falls absolutely flat when you’re talking to anybody who doesn’t have the letters P, H, and D after their name. As authors John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky put it in their excellent Debunker’s Handbook:

Common wisdom is that the more counter-arguments you provide, the more successful you’ll be in debunking a myth. It turns out that the opposite can be true. When it comes to refuting misinformation, less can be more. Generating three arguments, for example, can be more successful in reducing misperceptions than generating twelve arguments, which can end up reinforcing the initial misperception.

There’s plenty of cognitive science to back up the idea that people are more likely to remember — and are more convinced by — a few simple, well-chosen, punchy facts than they are by the whole laundry list of arguments. What counted as “lazy research” in school turns out to be the way people actually prefer to argue out here in the Real World.

Call out the bad guys: our story needs them

In a college classroom, we are taught that it’s always wrong to personalize an argument. There is no place for ad hominem attacks, name-calling, or impugning someone’s intentions. According to the laws of reason, that’s just not fighting fair. We’re supposed to be congenial colleagues debating tough issues on their factual merits. There are no good guys or bad guys; there’s just a mutually respectful search for the truth in which everybody’s good faith is assumed and protected.

There may have been a day when that was true in American politics, but that day is long since over. The forms of academic debate are still observed on the floor of Congress, but you won’t find them in many of the other venues where Americans are discussing their common destiny. That’s because we know now that voters are far more motivated by stories that present change in terms of high conflict: there’s a hero with a quest, posited against a villain who poses a threat. The weapons both choose and the details of their struggle lie at the center of all good storytelling. Leaving out even one of these elements creates a story that’s unsatisfying, and unlikely to move people to action.

Joseph Campbell laid all of this out four decades ago, and professional storytellers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue understand how hardwired we are to viscerally understand stories that are structured this way. But, even so, too many liberal politicians (including, most notably, President Obama up until just very recently) still cling to the academic rule that we shouldn’t call out people as villains, or accuse them of doing willfully bad things. And then we wonder why people won’t mobilize — even though we haven’t given them anybody to mobilize against, any sense of a threat that’s worth getting off their butts for, or any larger moral story that will allow them to understand themselves as heroes if they do get up and fight.

Those of us who’ve been through the college wringer — and especially those of us who’ve been working in some kind of knowledge field in the years since — might find it hard to let go of some of these treasured habits of mind. After all, they’ve served us well all our lives. They’ve made us comfortable. They make us acceptable and trusted in the enclaves where educated, reasonable people gather. They’re often an essential source of intellectual power in our daily work.

But as activists, these same skills often simply get in our way, tangle us up, and separate us from the very people we’re most hoping to convince. If the first step to solving a problem is being aware of it, it’s probably time to admit that there are a few places in this world that these cherished, hard-won attributes make us less useful than we’d like. It’s time we started retraining ourselves to deal with political reality as it is, and not as our professors told us it was going to be.