Persuasion, politics and adult education

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Building on more than a century of adult education for community engagement, the WEA is running  ‘Why Vote‘ and ‘Deciding Locallyinitiatives to boost voter registration. Dr Henry Tam from the University of Cambridge led a Twitter chat about it last week. There’s a Storify summary of tweets here.

Ballot_Box_web_3

The WEA doesn’t promote any individual political party but has a long tradition of encouraging people to vote and to go further by becoming active in politics, especially at local levels.

Practical political education aims to stimulate critical thinking about how democracy and politics work. It is important that people can make informed decisions and can develop the skills and confidence to get involved in shaping policies that affect them directly.

Critical questioning plays a key role in political judgments and in daily life. Information bombards us from several sources every day, but can we trust it? Are we being informed or manipulated – deliberately or inadvertently? Do we notice the difference between indoctrination, persuasion and education?

Indoctrination trains people to accept a set of beliefs without opportunities for questioning so that they conform to particular ideas, opinions and principles without considering alternatives.

Persuasion is more subtle. It relies on the assumption that most people will not sift through the range of relevant information even when they are free to do so. A persuader can impose their opinion by highlighting specific ‘information’ or by appealing to emotions.

In theory, education presents facts and logical arguments, encouraging students to think for themselves, assess all the relevant information and come to their own conclusions. In practice, education does not take place in a vacuum. Teachers are likely to bring their own perspectives and can be powerful persuaders, while students apply their own filters based on their personal experiences. Some adult students are very eloquent and informed before they begin a course. Others are more likely to accept ideas without questioning. These issues raise various practical and ethical questions.

As an adult education organisation, the WEA respects tutors and students as equals who share and learn from their differing experiences. Being able to understand and to apply principles of persuasion might be a useful part of the teaching and learning process.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric defined these principles many centuries ago, identifying the three elements of logos, ethos and pathos.

  • Logos – logic, facts, evidence, reason
  • Ethos – ethics, credibility, dependability
  • Pathos – emotion, appeal to people’s feelings

aristotle's rhetoric

 

Watching a news bulletin on television can be a good opportunity to look for the three elements of rhetoric. We can assess how much of what we are told is based on facts and evidence and can think about whether we trust the source. We can decide whether we are being swayed because of substance, spin or charisma.

There are some good free resources to help with analysis of political parties’ policies and statements of fact, including:

  • Vote for Policies at http://voteforpolicies.org.uk/ which provides a test of what policies you might agree with if bias towards a particular political party is removed.
  • Full Fact at https://fullfact.org/ which is an independent fact checking organisation which provides free tools, information and advice, so that anyone can check the claims we hear from politicians and the media.

Anyone who thinks that politics has no place in education or vice versa should think about how many cabinet ministers of different political parties have studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics degrees at the University of Oxford

Recognising the elements of rhetoric is a tiny step in comparison but can give people some tools to assess information and more skills in getting messages across for themselves.

Any other useful websites, resources or comments?

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About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

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