They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

By: Stephen M. Ryan

They ride! Bias. Stereotyping. Prejudice. And Discrimination. The four horse-persons of the Illiberal Apocalypse. They ride through all lands. Through the domestic and international news. In our streets. In our classrooms. In our students’ heads. And (whisper it who dares) in our own.

It is not just the evidence of daily life, the news broadcasts, the sly messaging of our politicians, the stray comments from friends and family that make me say this. It is also the evidence from deep within our brains (where else?). Since Banaji and Greenwald (1995) developed first the term implicit bias and then an actual online test for it, millions of us have taken the self-check and disappointed ourselves mightily by failing it. It certainly seems like failure, as just about everybody turns out to have more implicit biases than they ever imagined. The Horse-persons are everywhere, including where we hoped least to find them.

So, what is the responsible language teacher to do about it? “Nothing,” I hear you say. We are language teachers and should focus on helping students to develop language skills, leaving it to others to save the world. But doesn’t the word “educator” imply that we aspire to something nobler than that? Besides, many of us, alongside language, are teaching “cultural content.” The way we approach cultural issues can have profound effects on how our students see the world.[1] Those of us who teach outside our own countries are often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as “cultural content” personified. Whether we like it or not, the way we approach these issues in and around the language classroom matters. It matters a lot.

So, I ask again: What is the responsible language educator to do? Well, as you might have guessed, I have some ideas. But first, a little excursion into the human brain and how it processes (or constructs, or predicts) reality.

[1] As Rogers and Hammerstein warn us:

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


Predicting Our World

Avid readers of these pages will be familiar with the whacky world of Predictive Processing, which some have called the Grand Unifying Theory of the Brain. Here’s a quick refresher for those who do not have the leisure to go back and read our whole Think Tank issue on PP.

T. S. Eliot posited that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Cognitive sciences confirm that, bear it or not, we simply do not have the bandwidth to process very much of the sensory information provided by our environment. Back in 1986, Herbert Zimmerman estimated that, at any given moment, the world around us is producing something like 11 million bits of information. Even if he was wrong by several orders of magnitude, it is pretty clear that a human mind which can consciously process only round 40 bits at a time simply can’t keep up.

So, what is the fix, the work around that allows us not only to survive but to function and thrive in this world of sensory overload? Simply put: we predict most of it, and use our limited sensory channels only to confirm or refute the predictions generated by our mind.

When explaining this process to students, I often use the example of a chair. When entering a room, it is reasonable to expect that there will be one or more chairs there that we could sit on. In most situations, we do not have time (or bandwidth) to go through the thought processes needed to identify a chair based solely on the input of our senses: “Oh, look an object standing on the floor with a flat surface just below waist height and legs extending below that. Looks about the size of a human bottom. I wonder if it would support my weight? The legs look as though they are positioned to give stability and, oh yes, there’s another upright piece that might provide support for my back. It feels kind of soft and a little springy, not hot or damp. Say, I could sit on this! It must be some kind of chair.”

No, no, no. What happens in reality is that we use our previous experience of chairs to predict that this, too, is a chair, without going through all that sensory analysis. We use the pressure sensors on our buttocks and lower back to confirm or dismiss our prediction. In other words, we see a chair and sit in it. Not all chairs are the same, of course, and we may not have encountered just this type of chair before. Figure 1 shows a sampling of the wide variety of chairs we may have encountered. So, instead of recalling every instance of a chair and matching it to the current potential exemplar, our brain has distilled what we might call the “Essence of Chair-ness” from all previously encountered chairs (looking something like Figure 2). This is the template we use to predict chair-ness and to allow us to sit down without going through a lengthy checking process first.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Look again, though, at Figure 2. What do you see? No, look more closely and think about the topic of our Think Tank this month. What do you see now? I put it to you that this is a stereotype of a chair. They do, indeed, ride!

Far, then, from being a glitch in the system, an unfortunate stage we should all try to get over, or something we can wish away, stereotypes—the pre-disposition to see things in a certain way (aka bias)—and the prejudice and discrimination that emanate from them are the very essence of the system. They are the key component of our ability to function in a world full of sensory signals. They are not a glitch in the machine; they are its very essence!

A Life Without Bias

What would the world be like for us, then, if we were able to obliterate all bias, all pre-judging from our minds? Well, it would be a little like my description of trying to identify a chair as though we had never seen one before (only worse: we wouldn’t even expect to find a chair when we entered the room). It would be very much like the experience of the central character in the movie 50 First Dates, who suffers from a neurological disorder and wakes each morning with no memory of the previous day. Only, instead of waking each day to a newly-made world of undiscovered experiences, we would be emerging every moment into such a world.

In fact, our constant re-discovery of the world would be pretty much like the way Daniel Kahneman describes System 2 thinking. It is slow. It takes a lot of effort. It is logical and methodical. It is conscious. And above all, it is reliable: we will seldom sit on the wrong thing. We will spot the wonky leg, the whoopie cushion, the tell-tale signs that it will not bear our weight, before we sit down and embarrass ourselves. We will avoid sitting on things that superficially look like chairs but in reality are not. This is a way of thinking that allows us to see every single person we meet as an individual, eschewing the lenses of stereotype and bias. It is not the way we normally think.

Kahneman’s System 1 is more like our normal way of thinking. It is responsible, he estimates, for 95% of our cognitive processing. And it is everything System 2 is not: It is fast. It is automatic. It is associative (rather than logical). It is done unconsciously and it is horribly, horribly wrong at times. Yet it is good enough. It gets us through most of the waking moments of our lives. It is our auto-pilot. It literally runs on bias and prejudices. It is the very core of us.

It is so necessary and so riddled with prejudice that System 2 spends much of its time lying to us about what System 1 is doing and why. It lies about the simplest things. A decision about when to move a single finger, for example: experimental evidence shows that the decision is taken a full second before the finger-movers are aware that they are going to move it; yet, when asked, they say it was a conscious decision. This is just one of a whole series of incidents and experiments related by Eagleman in which System 1 decides on a course of action and System 2 makes up a story about the action and why it is being taken.

And it lies about the big things: “No, I didn’t decide who to hire based on skin colour; I went for the better qualified person.” “No, I didn’t sit here to avoid sitting next to her. This seat has a better view.” “No, I don’t judge people based on stereotypes, I like to get to know them.”

Jonathan Haidt takes Kahneman’s System 1/System 2 analogy a little further. He depicts System 1 as an elephant, lumbering along, going where its instincts take it; while System 2 sits on its back, imagining it is in control. Better yet: the rider is a lawyer, says Haidt, justifying the elephant’s every action, providing the positive spin that we need to feel good about ourselves. So, our conscious mind has the illusion not only that it is in charge of the elephant’s actions but also that it is acting from the purest, most logical motives, while in fact the elephant is acting on every stereotype and prejudice our experience has allowed us to accumulate. No wonder Banaji and Greenwald’s test finds implicit bias even in the best of us.

Schooling the Brain

So, given all that, what are language teachers to do?

Well, we know what we actually do. We carefully screen our public utterances and actions for any trace of bias. We admonish our students to avoid stereotypical thinking, especially about speakers of the target language, despite the images that some textbooks provide: not all British people drink tea; not all Americans are loud; not all English-speakers are white, etc., etc., etc. We urge them to think of visitors from overseas as people rather than foreigners, as individuals rather than as representatives of their race or nation, as idiosyncratic speakers of English rather than as an undiluted model of native-speakerdom. We may also subscribe to campaigns such as “Just say no to racism” or “Discrimination has no place in school”; placing posters in the classroom, delivering lectures, recounting personal encounters with stereotypical thinking. In fact, some of us get very good at this, thinking it is our mission to reform the prejudiced thinking of our students (although, isn’t that a prejudiced way of thinking, too?).

Just one problem with all this; there’s very little evidence that it works. Oh, the brighter students soon learn to parrot our slogans back at us (after all, it might be on the test!). With persistence, most people can learn to hide their prejudices, to screen their utterances, to examine their motives and reactions. Is this stamping out racism? Reducing prejudice, etc.? There is good reason to think it is not.

Why is it so ineffective? Because we are talking to the elephant rider, the conscious brain, the spinner of lies and post-hoc justifications. At best, we are educating the lawyer.

What should we be doing? Talking to the elephant!

Talking to the Elephant

If it is the elephant that is in charge most of the time, then it is the elephant we should be addressing. Not through words, and logic, and reasoning. But through experience.

Take one more look at Figure 2, please. Where does this pernicious stereotype of a chair come from? No child is born with a pre-conceived notion of what a chair is. It is, as I have said, our distilled experience of chair-ness that allows us to form this image. Experience is the language that System 1 understands. In fact, System 1 depends on experience to form (and re-form and adjust, hone, and nuance) the models it builds.

Hence, the GIGO—Garbage in Garbage Out—principle. The best example I know of this is the infamous case of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot. Programmed to learn from the way people write on (pre-Musk) Twitter, the bot, after less than 24 hours, turned into a racist homophobe. Conversely, if we can provide our students with experiences (rather than lectures) that help them to form wholesome biases about other people, we will be feeding their System 1s with the raw materials they need to build healthier, less harmful models of target-language users (etc.). Less Garbage In = Less Garbage Out.

How can we provide such experiences to our students? Encourage foreign travel; support study abroad programmes; incentivise them to seek out and interact with people whose life-experiences are radically different from their own; invite guests to the classroom; provide opportunities for informal interactions (eating together, playing together, working on joint projects) with the guests; take advantage of opportunities for virtual visits (through Zoom, Teams, etc.) to classrooms in other parts of the world and other parts of the country; engage them in simulation games and role-play activities that involve taking another person’s perspective. The activities are not hard to imagine once we know that the key word is experience.

It is important, though, to ensure that these encounters with people from different backgrounds happen under the right circumstances. As history has taught us in various “trouble spots” throughout the world, proximity alone is not enough to overcome prejudice. We have known, though, since at least 1954, what the “right” ingredients are for prejudice-reducing encounters. Allport’s research shows us clearly that the following elements must all be present in the activity: equal status; a shared goal; cooperation to achieve the goal; and positive feedback during the interaction. In other words, by all means have your students play competitive games with visitors but be sure to mix up the teams so it is not “us against them.” Both teams should have locals and visitors cooperating to out-smart the other team, and cheered on for their successful collaboration.

Even vicarious experience can work. Steven Pinker, in his magisterial and convincing study of the decline of brutality and rise of civility around the world, attributes it, at least in part, to the emergence and mass availability of novels. What do novels do for peace? They allow the reader to experience the world from the perspective of others. Of course, TV shows and movies do this, too. They provide not just a window but an insider’s view of life from another’s perspective. Add them to the list of weapons we can use to fight The Four Horse-persons.

They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

Rogers and Hammerstein were right, of course, in South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

But their devastatingly tongue-in-cheek message should be read not as a pessimistic shrug of the shoulders but as a clarion call to educators everywhere: They’ve got to be carefully taught! Forget the lectures, the posters, and the slogans. There’s a new/old teacher in town: EXPERIENCE, the only thing that can teach an elephant. Let it talk loud and clearly to the elephants in your (class)room.

Stephen M. Ryan teaches English and “How To Get Along with People from Different Backgrounds” at Sanyo Gakuen University in Okayama, Japan.

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