Teaching makes a difference – shock

Last week, I had a most unusual experience. After some contact time with students, one of them approached me and told me that I’d ‘changed her opinion’ on the matter in hand, and had ‘converted’ her to the opposite point of view.

One out of 130 is pretty good, actually…

‘Oh, well done, Simon’, you might say, ’15 years of teaching and you finally got someone to agree with you: the law of averages strikes again.’ And you might be right, but there’s something more here.

Firstly, I wasn’t trying to get anyone to change their minds. The session was for the University of the Third Age, an organisation that runs educational events for seniors in a number of countries. I’d been asked to spend a day discussing “does the EU have a future?” with a group of 130 here in Surrey and I’d set out my stall at the very start of the day. My pitch was that while people might consider the subject to be important, they often don’t know much of the detail, so the day (4×1 hour sessions) was there to raise levels of knowledge, so people could understand the situation better and make more informed decisions. While pro-EU myself, I certainly wasn’t aiming to ‘convert’ anyone, merely to give them the tools to make up their own minds.

For me, as a political scientist, I have absolutely no problem with that: all our teaching is predicated on this basis. I would hope that none of us sets out to produce mini-mes, but rather individuals capable of self-reflection and -criticality, who can articulate their own views.

The upshot of this is that I spent as much of the day talking about what they wanted to discuss as about what I’d planned to cover. Sat in a concert hall, interaction was necessarily limited, but we managed to get a good flow of questions and comments going, and I got repeatedly buttonholed during the breaks.

Now, at this point I have to admit something here. I know from the literature that increased knowledge is associated with increased levels of support for the EU. However, I also know that this is a population-level effect, rather than one of “I teach you about the EU and you love it.” Hence, it wasn’t something that I felt was that relevant to the situation in hand.

And this is the second point. As much as this was about doing some teaching, it was also about contributing to a wider public discussion.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about the possible referendum on EU membership that might be coming to the UK in the next few years. My position is that such a referendum would be a bad idea, for while it might be ‘the voice of the people’, it would more than likely be their voice about something other than EU membership. Referenda are notoriously second-order, and so are votes on government performance rather than the matter in hand. And in this particular case, levels of knowledge about the EU are some of the lowest in the Union.

Seen in this context, my main exhortation to the audience was that they needed to continue their learning and their discussion with others, since that will be the best way to find solutions to the current impasse in policy. While I have my views about what that way should be, I’m also a democrat, so I have to respect what the population at large decides. My role – and the role of all teachers of politics – is to try and support that discussion and debate. If we can do that, then that is worth even more than changing someone’s mind.