Education and the Refugee Crisis: Preparing People to Think in About Complex Political Issues

In Enlightenment 2.0 Joseph Heath explores the way that cognitive biases affect political debate. One of the points that he makes is that individuals’ attention span is often limited and that, as a result, flawed but simple arguments often convince more people than more well reasoned but harder to explain complex arguments. Heath uses the examples of free trade and evolution to illustrate this point. It can take up to an hour to properly explain David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage and international trade or to fully explain the theory and evidence behind evolution. Outside of a university or high school or university classroom it is rare that one has an audience captive enough to fully explain these ideas (Heath, 2014, 309-313). This is a problem for the debate occurring in many Western developed countries over whether and how many refugees to accept. Many of the arguments against accepting refugees are simple while many of the responses to those arguments are complicated and fairly difficult to explain. Individuals cannot be forced to sit through university seminars on the crisis, but education systems can play a role in making people more receptive to arguments in favour of accepting refugees. Teaching about the complexity of international conflict and Canada and the United States’ troubled history when it comes to accepting refugees is important to increasing the likelihood that individuals will be receptive to arguments for opening borders towards refugees in future crises.

One of the key problems with the debate surrounding the refugee crisis is that the arguments against accepting refugees tend to be simplistic while the responses to them tend to be complicated. Opponents of accepting refugees assert that refugees are a security risk (domestic criminals and terrorists are a far greater threat to individuals than foreign terrorists and rejecting refugees is likely to increase the strength of groups like ISIS that are a threat to international security). They argue that refugees will cost Canadians jobs (Planet Money drew comparisons to the influx of refugees into Florida from Cuba which had no negative impact on the economy). They also argue that many refugees do not share Canadian values (wrongly assuming that most refugees think the same way as the repressive regimes that they are fleeing). Each of these arguments against accepting refugees is easy to articulate in a couple of sentences for a thirty second sound bite but is difficult to respond to without a fair bit of detailed argumentation and well researched evidence. This is the challenge for proponents of accepting refugees across the developed world. Proponents of accepting refugees have to find ways of making complicated and detailed arguments in a media environment dominated by the 30 second sound bite and 140 character tweet.

Heath makes the point in his book that students in a classroom are unlike most individuals who consume media in an important way, they are a captive audience. Unlike most consumers of media who can change the channel when a story gets overly complicated or boring, students are generally required to attend classes and listen to the full explanation of ideas. They have strong incentives to learn complicated material, at the very least because they want to do well in their classes. Universities and secondary schools thus have a unique opportunity to teach complex ideas to those that attend them. A university or a high school can present material in a way that most mass media cannot, and therefore convey ideas that are often lost in most media reporting. Education systems of course, cannot prepare individuals for each individual crisis. Individuals cannot be made to go back to school every time a major conflict breaks out and schools cannot teach about every potential conflict that may occur during a persons’ life. Education systems can highlight two broad ideas that provide important frames that can make it more likely that individuals will grasp the complexity of crises.

The first thing that education systems can do is highlight the complexity of international conflict. There is a real danger when crises break out that people will assume that the group or groups that get the most media coverage are representative of entire populations. When most of the media coverage of Middle East deals with ISIS and other terrorist groups or authoritarian regimes, the likelihood that people will believe people from the Middle East do not share our values increases. There is a tendency for people to frame news stories as in “us vs. them” terms and to characterize the “them” as whatever shows up most often if the first couple stories run by CBC or CNN or shows up most often in their Twitter feed. In a world where media is increasingly 30 second soundbites and 140 character tweets, it is difficult to give individuals an understanding of the diversity of beliefs in another country or the complexity of a conflict taking place half way around the world.

Education systems can respond to this by priming individuals to think of conflicts as complex. If students in high school and university learn history and current events as a series of complex and difficult to understand conflicts and relationships, they will be more likely to look for complexity in the current events that they witness after they leave school. The history and current events being taught in class rooms is not just teaching students about the specific events, it is teaching them about the way that international relations and politics within countries work generally. When students learn about the Cold War as a simple clash between the West and the Soviet Union with countries fitting neatly into democratic and communist blocs they are likely to look for the same clean lines in other conflicts. If, by contrast, students learn about the complex ways in which the clash between the West and the Soviet Union interacted with other political movements and ideas across the world they will be more likely to look for those kinds of complex relationships in the events they see after leaving the education system. Teaching about non-aligned countries, about the way that nationalism shaped the Cuban revolution and the Vietnam war, and about the uprisings against communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia is important because of what it tells students about the way that politics works. It shows students that there are often more than two ideologies at play in conflicts, that there are often diverse political viewpoints within countries, and that the views of a government in power (especially an authoritarian one) cannot always be equated with those of the population of a country.

Understanding this complexity has important implications for the way that people respond to an event like the Syrian refugee crisis. Objections to taking refugees that are based on perceptions that refugees might be terrorists or that refugees lack the liberal democratic values of many in the West can result from the way that Western media focuses on terror groups such as ISIS or authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria. Teaching about the complexity of conflict is important because it makes individuals more likely to understand that the views of governments and terrorist organizations covered in the media are almost always very different from the refugees fleeing these governments and terrorists. The work of dispelling a lot of myths about refugees done by refugee advocacy groups can be made easier if individuals are already primed to look for a more complex story than the one that is often presented in the media.

The second way in which education can change the way the public is to teach about some of the way that refugees have been treated in the past. Australia, Canada, and the United States accepted large numbers of refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s and the United States has taken in significant numbers of refugees from Cuba since Fidel Castro took power there. The intake of refugees from Vietnam and from Cuba has often been at a rate much larger than many of the proposed American and Canadian intakes of refugees from Syria. As the Planet Money episode linked to in the second paragraph points out, the intake of a large number of refugees had very limited economic impacts on the communities that took them in. The increased competition for jobs by refugees was offset by the increased demand for goods and services by refugees. Teaching these examples is important because it provides a quick and easy response to many of the concerns raised about the ability of countries to take large number of refugees. Individuals can appeal to point to these cases in response to concerns that countries will be overwhelmed by refugees. The point that “we have done this before and it has worked out fine” is a powerful one. This is not to say that ever situation is the same, every refugee crisis has its own unique characteristics and the Syrian refugee crisis is no different. Teaching individuals that accepting large numbers of refugees has worked out well in the past shifts the burden of proof for those arguing against accepting refugees. Instead of just pointing to the potential problems, opponents of refugees have to explain why this particular case is different than past cases.

Teaching the history of refugee politics in Canada and the United States offers cases where the response of Canada and the United States to refugees has been shameful and where the consequences of restrictive policies have been disastrous. In 1939 over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Germany on the St. Louis were denied entry both to Canada and the United States and sent back to Germany. Advocates in favour of accepting refugees are drawing parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and the failure of Canada and the United States to accept Jewish refugees in 1939. These appeals increase in their power the more people know the story of Canada and the United States failures to accept refugees in the past. Failure to react to crises with compassion in the past has had disastrous consequences in the past. Learning about these past failures is essential because it makes it less likely that individuals will repeat these failings. Teaching about the failings of Canada and the United States makes it less likely that those failings will be repeated in the future.

One of the challenges in the debate of accepting refugees is that arguments against accepting refugees are often easier to explain than those in favour. This presents a serious challenge for advocates of more compassionate asylum policies across the Western world. Education systems can prepare individuals to think about these debates in a critical manner. Teaching about the complexity of global politics and Canada and the United States’ history regarding refugee politics are important because they help to give individuals the tools to be receptive to and think through some of the more complex arguments in favour of accepting large numbers of refugees. This is not a panacea that will make everyone more likely to support the admittance of large numbers of refugees, nor should it be. The purpose of education is not to make individuals more likely to side with any one side of a debate. It is important, however, that education gives individuals the tools to think through the more complex arguments and the past events which are part of any political debate. High schools and universities have a uniquely captive audience that has to listen and learn the complex ideas they are presented with. It is essential that education systems make use of this captive audience to provide individuals with background needed to understanding complicated arguments about global politics and the history of American and Canadian refugee policy.

* For more on cognitive biases, reason, and politics see Heath, Joseph. (2014). Enlightenment 2.0 Restoring Sanity to our Politics, our Economy, and our Lives. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers.


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