Taking Ex Ed into international relations

April 4, 2012 at 10:02 PM

Taking Ex Ed into international relations


Lara Porter QC’14 and Jim Stellar


LP is an economics and political science major who works in the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding (CERRU) as well as participates in a small group JS runs to study the learning power of experiential education and some of its underlying psychology and neuroscience. We came across this interesting recent study in Science, “Promoting the Middle East Peace Process by Changing Beliefs about Group Malleability” out of Carol Dweck’s lab at Stanford and it seemed to resonate with some other work we were reading on a brain chemical called oxytocin.  So we decided to write about these pieces and try to tie them back to experiential learning.


The Science study cited above focuses on Israeli-Jews, Israeli-Arabs, and Palestinian attitudes toward peace after learning about and believing in the malleability of character traits.  The study concludes that belief in malleable character traits promoted “better intergroup dynamics” and “increased willingness to compromise for peace.” In other words, the study finds that each of these groups showed more positive and hopeful attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process after learning about and believing in the ability of individuals to change their characteristic way of thinking.  


Oxytocin is a neurohormone that is released by the pituitary gland and causes, among other things, a milk-let-down neuroendocrine reflex in nursing mothers that allow them to eject milk into the vestibule of the breast upon suckling so that the baby can nurse.  More interestingly, it has an ability to create empathy or compassion between groups and it can even be administered as a spray in the nose – see the TED talk by Paul Zak where he discusses trust, empathy, and morality. In fact a very recent study from the University of Derby showed that oxytocin increases the “ease of imaging compassionate qualities” in others, which seems highly relevant to the Science study discussed above.


However this study out of Derby comes with a caution, as the authors point out that effect was much less in those participants who scored “higher in self-criticism, lower in self-reassurance, social safeness, and attachment security.”  Another cautionary study also showed elevated in-group affiliation behavior with oxytocin administration, but then showed an increased willingness to make out-group members a target.  So, it might depend on how you as an individual define the out-group whether oxytocin (administered externally or released naturally) would help a peace process.  Let’s go back to the TED talk and focus on the trust and trustworthiness part.  Maybe that is a way to expand the in-group to include what was previously an out-group and then oxytocin release could play a role in mediating conflict between different groups.


Talk about different groups – at Queens College we are in what is supposed to be the most diverse borough in the USA.  The College has among its 20,000 students from 150 or more countries who speak 60 or more languages.  A good 40% of the Queens College students are born outside the USA. 


This diversity of peoples creates tremendous opportunities for service-learning at CERRU and this is the particular area in which LP works. CERRU promotes students working together from differing cultures/religion/languages. It has many levels of student involvement. The first, most approachable level brings students together to participate in dialogues on controversial issues. Here students are able to interact with members from completely different communities and demystify their misconceptions about the “other”. Then there are student dialogue facilitators who train together as a group. These students have a larger leadership role and get to know one another on a deeper level. The aspect LP is most concerned with is the community service aspect, CERRU Volunteer Corps. We coordinate community service events at Queens College, match students with volunteer opportunities, and have bi-weekly meetings where we discuss issues like identity and service. In terms of the research, all these activities allow students to expand their “in-group” to include fellow students, or fellow volunteers, as opposed to just their racial/ethnic/religious communities. They also build trust, a huge part of Dweck’s malleability study. 


The heart of the malleability study is the notion of seeing people that are different from you as inherently irrational. Once a student works with other students as part of a larger group, whether as a volunteer or as a dialogue facilitator, they will rely on one another in a way that allows for both parties to be seen as competent, rational, and not all that different. Maybe that is the best way to begin building that trust.


How does this thinking relate to experiential education?  First, there is the service-learning component made into a more powerful experience when one reaches across the lines that divide us and steps out of one’s comfort zone.  With proper reflection and connected to academic study, this kind of service-learning can be among the most engaging of the components of experiential education much like one gets in service-learning abroad programs.  Second, this discussion touches, as do so many of the posts, on the way in which the hidden or fast-thinking brain works to create issues – in this case with the out-group.  Then one can see how those issues can be exposed through experience and how reflection with the conscious or slow-thinking brain can surface that knowledge.  One of the fascinating possibilities here is that we are talking about the same unconscious learning processes in both the work of CERRU and experiential education.  Maybe the same exercise of redefining the person from the out-group into your in-group, practices the fast-slow thinking integration skills that lets people better work on other complex problems such as defining oneself in terms of a career, a choice of major, a life’s work.  And isn’t that one of the big goals of a college education?

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