individual experience is limited, what hope is there of understanding people whose logic defies our own, whose choices and beliefs appear inscrutable when judged against our own selp?
We decided to conduct this study after observing an 11th-grade social studies class on the civil rights movement. The class had just been shown a segment of the PBS series "Eyes on the Prize," which showed Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett physically barring James Meredith from registering at Ole Miss. In the discussion that followed, the teacher asked students why Governor Barnett objected to Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi. One student raised his hand and volunteered the answer "prejudice." The teacher nodded and the discussion moved on.
Prejudice is a very dangerous answer to this question: Dangerous because it substitutes labeling for understanding; dangerous because it psychologizes and individualizes a problem that can only be understood across time; dangerous because it gives students a false sense of having understood something when, in fact, they have understood little; dangerous because in viewing the past in terms of the present, it distorts the role of culture and history and creates an undisciplined optimism in the face of complex and often intractable problems.
Many questions remain in our project. We do not know how, exactly, people learn to think contextually. We do not know where they learn it when they do. We do not even know the role of formal study in its development. We are convinced however of one thing: The ability to think contextually is not, in the words of Fischer ( 1970), some "pristine goal of scholarly perfection":
If we continue to make the . . . error of conceptualizing the problems of a nuclear world in prenuclear terms, there will not be a postnuclear world. If we persist in the error of applying yesterday's programs to today's problems, we may suddenly run short of tomorrow's possibilities. If we continue to pursue the ideological objectives of the nineteenth century in the middle of the twentieth, the prospects of a twenty-first are increasingly dim. (p. 215)
Reason, as Fischer reminds us, is a pathetically frail weapon in the face of the problems that threaten to rend our society and our world. It is, however, the only weapon we possess.
Bennett L. ( 1968, February). Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist? Ebony, pp. 35-42.
Bradley Commission on History in Schools. ( 1989). Building a history curriculum. New York: Educational Excellence Network.
Cole M., & Means B. ( 1981). Comparative studies of how people think. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.