Roy Steiner
Senior Director, Learning & Impact

Charlottesville: A tragic failure to learn

August 17, 2017

Much has been written about the tragic events in Charlottesville last weekend. From a learning science perspective, Charlottesville is another painful reminder that we as a society are failing to learn from our collective experience, and we are suffering the consequences. At no other time in human history has the recognition and valuing of interdependence been more essential to enabling a just and peaceful future.

All the human sciences confirm that the more society embraces our basic desire for oneness, the more we flourish. Anthropology, physiology, and psychology recognize only one human species. Universal acceptance of this principle of oneness is the essential building block to establish peace, to solve our environmental challenges, and to address our economic dysfunctions.

Yet the events of the past week highlight the capacity of people to stubbornly cling to beliefs and a worldview that are outdated, dangerous, and in my opinion, immoral. Developing a cooperative and prosperous future will require courage, volition, empathy, and most importantly the capacity to learn.

One of the most interesting experiments that illustrates the point about learning and collaboration was conducted by behavioral economists (2014) using a multi-round Prisoner’s’ Dilemma experiment with actual human participants and real money.

In this experiment, subjects were first administered Raven’s Progressive Matrices, a test which measures fluid intelligence (i.e., not based on knowledge). In the end, 130 participants were allocated to two groups — “high fluid intelligence” and “low fluid intelligence.” The participants did not know how they were grouped.

Then within each group, different pairs of participants repeatedly played the prisoner’s dilemma — where the incentive is to cheat in the short term but cooperate in the long term.

The high fluid intelligence group not only diverged early from the low fluid intelligence group, but also sustained cooperation much longer. There wasn’t much difference between the two groups in the early rounds. The difference grew incrementally suggesting high fluid intelligence groups learned the optimal behavior from the previous rounds.

This is relevant to the events of the past week because it illustrates that we can learn to cooperate. If not managed well, diversity can reduce a sense of community and erode social capital — but it doesn’t have to do this. Through many examples around the world, we know how to manage and build social capital. When there is respect and reciprocity we know diversity can be an asset.

We live in a moment in history where racism is rife, trust is unraveling, and polarization is growing more entrenched. Now is the time to step into this unique window of opportunity with a strategy to plant the seeds of interdependence necessary to develop solutions to this rapidly expanding rift.

The oneness of humankind and the capacity and wisdom of collaboration should universally be proclaimed, taught in schools, and constantly asserted in every nation as preparation for the organic change in the structure of society which it implies. We need to nurture a new generation of people who are adept at managing diversity, embrace the value and insight that arise from this diversity, and are prepared to act in the long term best interests of humanity.

In the meantime, we must each find better ways to learn about and affect these issues. Some of the learning questions I am struggling with include:

1) The events of the past week encourage both anger and hatred. How do I channel my anger (which can be a powerful motivator for constructive action) without letting the poison of hatred infect my spirit?

2) If I really believe in the oneness of humankind, how do I avoid seeing the marchers in Charlottesville as “the other” and instead continue to see them as members of my human family (without condoning or supporting their actions)?



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