Context, Interests, and Unintended Consequences: Lenses for Seeing, Comprehending and Engaging with the World, pp. 2 of 5

Related to this, I also want students to pay attention to interests in the plural form. Just as there is no neutral position, there is no one unitary position. Any decision involving a society will have multiple actors. There will be people and groups who have different interests – there is the state, there are capitalists, employers, there are men who are workers, there are women who are workers, there are young people yet to be employed, there are retirees, there are people in different occupations who are placed in different places on the social hierarchy, etc. These different groups will have different things to gain and lose, as well as different orientations, sensibilities, and points of view. As critical thinkers, we should identify these different points of view and try to understand why they are the way they are. Importantly, the presentation of any position as “factual” – universal, neutral – is itself an act worth paying attention to.

If “interests” is a lens, what do students do with this lens vis-à-vis discussions about population?

Well, one of the big challenges I realized my students faced was shifting from seeing policies and policy statements as neutral and universal, to seeing them as decisions that represent certain beliefs and worldviews. That is, one of the things they had in fact not done a lot of in Secondary School or Junior College was precisely to ask: what interests are at stake, whose interests are involved?

Once they asked this question, they had to critically examine some of the assumptions made in the White Paper. One of these was the strong presumption that the only way forward for economic growth is via population growth. Another is that economic growth for the country represents improved wellbeing for all Singaporeans. In other words, they had to ask: is population growth the only way to attain economic growth? Relatedly, whom would economic growth of this sort benefit, and whom would it disadvantage?

These are obviously not easy questions to answer. I emphasize to my students that their answers should be empirically grounded rather than ideologically or dogmatically driven. The purpose of me introducing this lens in classrooms is not merely to get students to criticize for the sake of criticizing. Instead, I aim to teach students disciplined critique—critique that draws on systematic and empirical analyses. My purpose as a teacher is in heightening students’ awareness and engagements as young citizens who have a stake in the future. So what I want them to be able to do is not just be able to say that something is problematic, but push them to question why or how, and what might be some alternative visions of the world.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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