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Teaching How to Think About Policy

One of the things that the Interactivity Foundation does is to teach people how to think about public policy possibilities. This will sound patronizing only if you misunderstand why, what, and how we do it.

I heard an interview with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor earlier this month. She talked about the importance of civic engagement in our democracy and her concern about the state of policy discussions in America. She was particularly concerned that people are not being taught how to think and evaluate policies. (And let’s face it, no one is born with it.) Indeed, we are not taught how to think about policy in our schools, our universities, or our increasingly polarized media. This poor civic knowledge and engagement weakens American democracy.

Jay Stern, the founder of the Interactivity Foundation, wanted to address this concern by facilitating and encouraging the development and thoughtful consideration of contrasting policy possibilities. We explore and develop a wide range of contrasting conceptual possibilities for public policy pertaining to our areas of concern in our sanctuary projects, and we then organize and facilitate discussions of them among the general public. The facilitators who conduct these discussions do not tell you what to think about policies pertaining to food, property, genetic technology, or work; which possibilities you should or should not support; or which congressman to call. They focus instead on the process of thinking carefully, critically, and seriously about the possibilities themselves. They focus, in other words, upon understanding the different concepts, principles, beliefs, values, interests, and goals that might motivate different policies; understanding how they relate to the possibilities themselves; exploring their possible implementations; and exploring their intended and unintended consequences (for more see Mark Notturno’s four part series on ‘How to Evaluate an IF Policy Possibility’). And they try to do this for each of the conceptual possibilities that we present in our reports.

But it is not an easy process. It is, first of all, very difficult to think conceptually. Most of us are focused upon the more practical everyday world and are unaccustomed to thinking about abstract concepts, principles, beliefs, values, interests, goals, and the reasoning behind them. And it is even more difficult to carefully and critically and seriously consider ideas that are fundamentally different from our own—especially because they just seem to be outright wrong.

But we do not try to show you that possibilities are either right or wrong in IF discussions. We do not try to change your mind. We simply provide a forum in which you can discuss—as opposed to debate—the different policy possibilities with your neighbors, and explore the possible ways of approaching important issues to our society.