Prejudice and stereotyping are linked to our identity and to how we see ourselves. We are therefore loath to change our perceptions once we are presented with new knowledge. In fact, it may seem as if knowledge counts for nothing when it comes to our fundamental attitudes towards other people.
One classical example often cited to demonstrate that truth (knowledge) does not always make people do good is how the extreme crimes perpetrated during World War II were hatched and carried out by intelligent, well educated and knowledgeable individuals.
Contact between members of different groups is the most effective way of reducing prejudice.
Gordon Allport pointed out that knowledge does not change the attitudes of those who are prejudiced in the first place. He also took the view that knowledge and a form of lived experience of other people – not least through co-operation – can help against prejudice. This was the basis for his contact hypothesis, which proposes that contact between members of different groups is the most effective way of reducing prejudice.
Research has also found that knowledge matters. One example is the International Citizenship and Civic Education Study (ICCS) carried out amongst lower secondary students in 2009. In the Norwegian part of the study the researchers identified a degree of correlation between knowledge and engagement without being able to conclude which impacts on which.
They also point out that it can be problematic in a democracy if too much emphasis is placed on knowledge when forming an opinion. Since people have different levels of knowledge, this would instead legitimise governance by an enlightened minority. This perspective is worth bearing in mind as we set out to justify our strong focus on knowledge, critical thinking and curiosity.
First we need to feel included. Only then can we absorb new knowledge that challenges our ordered view of the world.
Knowledge carries more significance in a safe framework in which the individual feels comfortable about their own values, identity and affiliation than when the individual feels insecure. To some extent it is a question about which comes first. First we need to feel included. Only then can we absorb new knowledge that challenges our ordered view of the world. We need to feel a degree of confidence in order to engage in the kind of self-reflection that is required when challenging stereotypes and prejudice.
What kind of knowledge?
At least as important as knowledge itself is the kind of knowledge the students encounter. Common denominators between our own group and others are important in order to ensure identification. Awareness of internal diversity, i.e. information that helps nuance our perception of uniformity within various groups, is important to prevent bias in how we view others.
Knowledge can change superficial perceptions.
It is not just ingrained attitudes that can result in exclusion and stigmatisation of others. Seemingly innocuous and superficial views and statements can also be stigmatising. There is much to suggest that knowledge and critical thinking can have a more instant and greater effect.
This was one of the findings in the 2006 report “Eleverne skal lære at skelne” (Students must learn to make distinctions), a study on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Danish lower secondary schools. Teachers who were interviewed reported that some students with a Middle Eastern background were expressing highly negative attitudes towards Jews and the state of Israel. The teachers described these attitudes as unconscious, as though they had been acquired at home without reflecting on them. Many of the teachers also stressed that students had completely changed their views on Jews after learning about anti-Semitism, Judaism and Israel.
Knowledge and critical thinking can have a more instant and greater effect than learning about prejudice formation when it comes to swaying attitudes.
One interesting point in this survey is that it is not a given that what the researchers called unconscious anti-Semitism would have been reduced as a result of general teaching on issues such as prejudice formation or anti-racism. Concrete facts on the very prejudices harboured by students are what give the students new insights.
Concrete knowledge of different forms of prejudice is also important in order to understand the context of what takes place in the school grounds. As both a teacher and member of society, you should be familiar with a few historical trends and topical discourse in order to recognise and interpret attitudes you encounter at school and in society.
This kind of knowledge-based perception of reality stands in stark contrast to various conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory can be defined as a rigid and all-encompassing perception of reality which does not change in the face of new information. Instead it is the interpretation of the new information that changes in order to fit the static theory.
Author: Rolf Mikkelsen