What Color is Your Dress?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Well. Who cares about ISIS/The Islamic State when we can focus our attention on the color of a dress on Facebook? It’s blue and black, by the way, as confirmed by the actual person who bought the dress. But the issue—if not the argument, dialogue, or diatribe about the color of the dress—emphasize the important issue of public discourse in politics and education. It is the akin to Rodney King’s cry of “why can’t we all get along?”

Some people saw white. Some saw black. But it is immensely interesting to see how this became a partisan issue. You were either with the White/Gold group or the Black/Blue group. And I cannot profess objection on this, because I was with the Blue/Black group within about two seconds of seeing the dress. And once there I wasn’t moving, nor could I figure out what everyone was talking about. So I became partisan like everyone else.

In truth, there is, of course, a logical reason for why different people see different colors in the dress. I’m not going to explain it here, but if you haven’t already, wired.com has a nice explanation that I mostly understand.

Now, layer the dress argument over any other dialogue we have in our field or society. We get into these horrible discussions—sometimes fights—about whether charter schools are good or bad; vouchers are good or bad; common core state standards are good or bad; and even whether free community college is good or bad.

Where we stand on these issues depends on what us high-falutin’, way-too-educated-but-still-want-the world-to-know-how-superior-we-are researchers call epistemology and Weltanschauung; basically, our world view and how we create and understand “knowledge.” This is why people who are brought up Christian tend to stay Christian, and the same goes for every other religion[1]. It’s the reason that people tend to stay in the political grouping of their parents. If your parents are Republican, chances are you are, too. About 70 percent of adult children share their parents political beliefs[2]. More recent studies suggest that brain processing differs between ideologies[3].

Regardless, people get entrenched in their beliefs, whether about theology, politics, race, and, of course, sporting teams. Once you are inside, it is tough to get out. Think Al Pacino in the Godfather: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Beliefs are like a huge gravitational pull that requires either immense rationale or a life-changing event to break through a barrier. And only a minor few change their base perceptions over a lifetime.

This is why it always bothers me when politicians talk about “changing Washington,” or “Washington is broken.” This has become a GOP rally-cry, but to be fair, every politician uses this at some point because they are selling themselves as change agents.

But very few of us really change. The Liberal Left or The Tea Party do not change anything, really. They just infuriate each other. I am shocked by what I read on Facebook and other social messaging. The level of hate from one side to the other is palpable and undeniable. We have digressed to such a low-level of political discourse that we cannot agree on getting anything done. Just now our representatives in Washington are holding budgets hostage via a potential government shutdown, even it is means shutting down (or not paying) Homeland Security employees. Come on. The use of political levers is by no means new, but it has never stumped to these lows.

It is easy to get jaundiced because we don’t think anything will happen or change. It’s why I believe that the thing that will change our education system is not the politics or the system, but the disjointed people who demand change. And those are typically the youth, not us grey hairs. Change will happen to higher education by those outside of it, not by those inside of it. People say that MOOCs won’t last or be meaningful. Maybe so, but the “idea” of MOOCs is changing how many people perceive higher education. Some things barely have to exist to begin to change how certain groups think. They say that Millennials don’t believe in buying cars anymore, when, for us, it was a right of passage. They similarly don’t necessarily think a college degree is worth what it once was. And they’re right. But they understand that the college degree is still a door opener. That will change when people value skills more than credentials. That wave is growing.

Overtime, worldviews change. The challenge in the United States and other democracies is that the change is so incremental that other, more violent extremes may push the needle too fast and too far.

What color is your dress?


[1] For instance, approximately 66 percent of adolescents raise Catholic remain Catholic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-cox/born-and-raised-more-amer_b_3682847.html.

[2] http://www.gallup.com/poll/14515/teens-stay-true-parents-political-perspectives.aspx.

[3] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/study-predicts-political-beliefs-with-83-percent-accuracy-17536124/?no-ist.

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