Education, Participation, and Responsibility

Jefferson once wrote that we must “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”  In supporting public education he spoke of the need to train people to be the guardians of their own liberty.  A recent Case foundation report, Citizens at the Center, indicates that the average American is not equipped with the knowledge, literacy, and analytical skills needed to assess the issues that we face today.  Yet, without the participation of these citizens, our solutions will be ill informed and incomplete.  How do we infuse Americans with the skills needed to meaningfully contribute to dialogue?  What role can our system of education play in building this dialogue and promoting ongoing engagement?  Who has the responsibility to ensure citizen engagement?  Who benefits when citizens don’t have the skills to engage in dialogue?

What is a wise decision?

Nadler and Chandler, writing in their 2004 book “Smart Questions,” set forth a ‘data to wisdom’ continuum, with “raw data” — information whose validity depends on the methods of collection and context,– being the least valuable information, and “wisdom” being the highest level of information.  From “raw data”, the continuum proceeds through “real information” (raw data placed in context), to “knowledge” (digested information), to “understanding” (insight into how knowledge integrates into the big picture and how it might be used by others) to “wisdom.” Wisdom is defined as “the ability to put understanding to use” or the “transformation of understanding into concrete action”.  Both understanding and wisdom require an integration of information with values and beliefs, and are particularly needed as circumstances change.  Daniel Yankelovich, writing in “The Magic of Dialogue” wrote that “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values” and that dialogue can help to “focus on our imaginations on what kind of society we really want.”  As he points out, such dialogues occur in a framework of mutual respect and help build both trust and a sense of community. Our country faces a number of highly complex issues that will require many wise decisions along the way if we are to effectively work our way through them.  Citizens have much to contribute to that wisdom. How can we engage in more effective dialogue as we seek to find our way forward?

Gaining Wisdom

“If the United States is to be a democracy, its citizens must be free. If citizens are to be free, they must be their own judges. If they are to judge well, they must be wise. Citizens may be born free; they are not born wise.”  These words were written by F. Champion Ward, Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, in 1949 as a preface to a  collection of  readings designed to help students better understand “American History and its great arguments”.  The collection was titled “The People Shall Judge”, and like our guides, it was designed to help students engage in discussions — or dialogues — where historical facts and thought could be digested, questioned, and integrated with the experience and thinking of those in the group. It is through this kind of dialogue that we can develop the type of judgments that lead to wise decisions. Dean Ward wrote of the importance of “forming habits of open discussion and independent judgment which will lead to wise decisions and new achievements in the American future.”  He concluded that “Surely, a democracy should invite its citizens to learn and think in this inquiring way. Surely, a democracy whose citizens do so learn and think will be well and freely served.” Where in our current political culture are the opportunities to practice and form these habits? What are the barriers? Where can we as citizens provide new opportunities to sift through, synthesize, and evaluate the often overwhelming amount of information that floods our daily lives, particularly in an election year?  Let us know what you are doing, and what more might be done.