What is the role of an organization like Sawhorse Revolution in such politically-charged times? What is the point of teaching a young man or woman to do an architectural sketch, plumb a post, or swing a hammer when his or her family may be stranded across foreign borders, in fear of losing their health care plan, or finding racial slurs spray-painted on their garage door?
The thought occasionally occurs to me that we should set aside our work as designers and builders and, instead, help our students participate in the political realm. Yet, when I follow that line of thought, it leads to a mental image in which our students hold inspiring signs of protest and shout for their rights at the top of their lungs, only to be completely ignored by those in power. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against protest: I have participated in the marches of late and appreciate the catharsis, inspiration, and motivation they provide. But, when it comes to making change, I am increasingly worried that we cannot do so through traditional political means. Based on what we’ve observed in the first two months of 2017, we should be cautious about any expectation that our arguments will be acknowledged, that our explanations will be considered, or that our voices will even be heard. We are functioning under a political regime that simply does not take feedback.
To be fair, most humans aren’t wired to take feedback. Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent article in The New Yorker, “That’s What You Think,” describes numerous psychology experiments performed since the 70’s that demonstrated the myriad ways in which people are bad at adjusting their perspectives in light of factual evidence. Psychologists summarize the lessons of these studies with the term “confirmation bias”, which is a ubiquitous characteristic that involves us paying attention to facts that support our pre-existing opinions, and disregarding the facts that don’t. In other words, we ignore the feedback we don’t like.
Now, we can see the obvious examples of confirmation bias that might be drawn from the alt-right, but the frightening thing about these psychology studies is that they reveal how everyone suffers from it. Indeed, this term is used in discussions of cognitive failures by highly-specialized experts – pilots, neurosurgeons, nuclear physicists. It’s also found in the education literature as a common barrier to learning for all types of students. The prevalence of confirmation bias should be of no surprise, because nobody likes being wrong – it’s much easier for my ego to downplay information or mold some details into an alternative fact than admit, “I am not perfect.”
Certain institutions have strategies to reduce the impact of such biases, such as the peer-review processes, but trying to undo or circumvent confirmation bias at the level of an individual person remains a highly mysterious project. Socrates made some headway here, but his method requires a type of genius few possess. Various types of therapy (e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) often attempt to identify engrained misconceptions as do certain styles of teaching that rely heavily on objective feedback. One of the reasons we love project-based education at Sawhorse is that the physical world provides its own, unbiased feedback – and it’s largely unforgiving to the ego. You can have all the alternative facts you want about how to measure and cut a piece of plywood, but at the end of the day if you don’t know what you’re doing, the process will be slow and arduous, the plywood won’t fit, and the final product won’t look good.
Yet, the presence of feedback, regardless of the source, is often insufficient to induce change; an openness to critique must also be present in the learner. It seems that a student’s capacity to participate in any type of cognitive restructuring depends on his or her aversion to being wrong. I suspect one’s resilience in this realm has a lot to do with his or her experience in youth with “failure training”. Many environments make us averse to failure – chastising teachers, poor grades, mocking peers – and train us to fear imperfection. Our cultural orientation towards material success further encourages an educational attitude in which hiding your mistakes holds the most reward. Yet, if our goal is to create a population of individuals that can absorb new information, adjust opinions, and overcome their biases, then we need to find a way to openly acknowledge imperfection and praise reflection, insight and honesty. One of our hardest and most important challenges at Sawhorse Revolution is to continually discover how to create safe, supportive environments in which everyone – students, counselors, builders – can do, fail, learn and do better. These “safe spaces” aren’t the misconstrued spaces in which students can hide from their shortcomings – rather, they are spaces in which students are free to be truly themselves, with all their imperfections, and discover who they want to become.
My hope is that political resistance will engender positive change. But, I am fearful that those in power, and their supporters, are too afraid of failure, of having been wrong, to participate in any type of discourse or take any type of feedback. There is no quick, simple solution to the present situation, whether one holds a hammer or a megaphone. But, if the current regime arose from an incapacity for introspection, then I believe what we are doing day-in and day-out at Sawhorse Revolution is not irrelevant. What we are doing is playing the long game: we are training future generations – hopefully, our future representatives and leaders – to listen to others, to reflect on their assumptions, and to better know their faults. We are training them to fail, with honor and integrity, so that they might ultimately succeed on behalf of their community and country, rather than just themselves.