If you find yourself enflamed by political discourse and perplexed by opposing views, the problem may not be the irrationality of your opponent - it may be that you have yet to master one of the most challenging skills of the sophisticated mind: The ability to not only tolerate your polar opposite, but have a deep and meaningful understanding of their perspective.
Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion seeks to address one of the more polarizing aspects of American life - the lack of understanding between liberals and conservatives. His book and its claims, which are derived from a collective look at social psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology and philosophy, were the topic of four symposia designed to inspire productive dialogue on the topic of mutual understanding for the "other." The symposia were offered to all members of the Swarthmore community and led by a small group of faculty members, including co-organizers Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Richard Schuldenfrei.
"The book brings to bear the theoretical issues in liberal arts and it applies it to practical ones - the liberal arts as a part of democratic life," Schuldenfrei, who moderated the first discussion. "The greatest pay-off of a liberal education is being able to see the world in more subtle and sophisticated ways. The ability to truly see the different sides of a divide is more valuable than anything else you can ask for in a liberal arts education. It is very difficult to have conversations with people who see the world in a completely different way and to actually understand where they're coming from. It is no mean feat to get inside people's worlds and find out why they think the way they do."
To understand how others see the world and come together for a greater good is "a significant achievement," Schuldenfrei says, and this book - as well as the subsequent discourse - seek to do that.
In the liberal arts tradition, Haidt's case draws from a range of academic disciplines, including biology, economics, history, philosophy, political science, religion, and sociology. The first discussion of series centered on the topic of "The Limits of Reason in Moral Thinking." Panelists at the event included Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action Barry Schwartz, Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosopy Richard Eldridge, Associate Professor of Economics Amanda Bayer, and Professor of History Timothy Burke.
The Righteous Mind Symposium has been made possible with funding and administrative support from the Swarthmore College Institute for the Liberal Arts. The Institute aims to foster curricular, pedagogical, and scholarly innovation; to engage in generative thinking about the future of the liberal arts and higher education; and to facilitate conversations between liberal arts institutions and those who live liberal arts lives.