Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Learning and (in)civility

Lionofzion's comment on my recent post about fixing incivility got me thinking about a classic work of research on learning.  LoZ argues that in many instances you can't fix incivility until you get at the reasons why people are uncivil--that as long as one party sees the other as profoundly wrong there is no almost no chance for respect.

I see that point, and it certainly describes one type of incivility--the sort based in, for want of a better word, contempt.  And LoZ is right,  it is almost impossible to fix contempt.  (Gladwell's Blink reports a study suggesting that the strongest predictor of divorce is contempt between spouses, surely a sign of the ability of contempt to ruin relationships.)

Fortunately, not all incivility is at the level of contempt.  Nor is all civility deeply rooted in respect for others.  So the question becomes: how can we distinguish types of civility and incivility, and having distinguished them, support the types that get to a useful, good end? 

Enter the classic work of research on learning, Marton, Hounshell, and Entwistle, The Experience of Learning (known by its fans in Provo, UT as the "Christmas Book" because of its bright red and green cover.)  EoL is one of the first works I know to turn the focus away from teaching to learning, and once focused on learning, EoL asks all sorts of important questions about how and why students learn.

In the opening chapter, Noel Entwistle points out that student approaches to learning follow three rough paths.  Some students are surface learners, motivated by a desire to keep up with course requirements.  Surface learners do not reflect on their learning, they memorize, and they think of knowledge as discrete bits of information.  Strategic learners seek the highest possible grades, and because this is their goal, they direct their work to the preferences of their teachers.  Deep learners are driven by a desire to understand for themselves. They create connections between pieces of information and across their courses.  They aim for learning to become a part of them, indistinguishable from who they think they are deep inside.
Both the categories and the motivations of deep, strategic, and surface learning can be applied to civility.  Take, for example, the role of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. Many white Southerners (and some blacks) prided themselves on Southern hospitality.  These people with a surface commitment to civility would be polite to each other in public, while holding the most noxious views of others in private.  Civility was atomistic--to be applied in one case or with one person but not another.

Young activists in the movement were strategic about civility.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee embraced non-violence as a tactic, its impact to be measured by its ability to win victories for protesters.  As long as peaceful protest seemed to win the day, SNCC was on board.  But when nonviolence made no headway, or opened the door for unapologetic racists to win the day, SNCC renounced it.  Only the faction of the movement affiliated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or the historic nonviolent organizations like Fellowship of Reconciliation made a deep commitment to nonviolence as a way of being, not a way to get something.

This post should not necessarily be read as a condemnation of strategic civility in favor of deep civility.  If you want to get things done--make decisions in faculty meeting, bring about social change, win in an adversarial setting--then strategic civility may be the best tool.  But deep civility holds out another promise--that faculty meetings, civic engagement projects, victories in policy debates, in the courtroom, etc,--are at best partial measures.  There is a more profound option--that a commitment to right relationships with others leads to an entirely other point of view, where civility is a byproduct of the decent, long-suffering, nonviolent people who live along side us. 

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