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The Science of Smart: Humanizing the Other

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This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.

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A very interesting project from Yale psychiatrist Bruce Wexler, reported here by Karin Laub and Diaa Hadid of the Associated Press:

“Both Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks largely present one-sided narratives of the conflict between the two peoples and tend to ignore the existence of the other side, but rarely resort to demonization, a U.S. State Department-funded study released Monday said.

The study by Israeli, Palestinian and American researchers, billed as setting a new scientific standard, tackled a fraught issue—Israeli claims that Palestinians teach hatred of Israel and glorify violence in schoolbooks.

The research appeared to undermine these allegations, while emphasizing that books in secular Israeli government schools did far better in acknowledging the Palestinians than vice versa.

The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew. The Israeli books were from state-run secular and religious schools, as well as independent ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The vast majority of the Palestinian books were used in government schools, and only six in private Islamic schools.

Scholars said they developed a new method to ensure greater objectivity, as they reviewed nearly 16,000 pages from Israeli state school books, close to 3,500 pages from books in ultra-Orthodox schools and close to 10,000 pages from Palestinian books.

Israeli and Palestinian researchers were fluent in Hebrew and Arabic so they could analyze the books of both communities. Often, texts were reviewed by more than one person, and the data was entered remotely into a database at Yale University so researchers could not be influenced by how the study was progressing, study organizers said.

The study found that as part of the selective narratives, Israeli and Palestinian books tended to describe negative actions of the other against the own community, while portraying the own community in positive terms.

Books often lacked information about the religion, culture, economy and daily life of the other side. The lack, the study said, ‘serves to deny the legitimate presence of the other.’

Study coordinator Bruce Wexler, a Yale psychiatry professor, told a news conference Monday that the main appeal to both sides is to ‘put in some more information that will humanize’ the other.” (Read more here .)

Sobering evidence that what we learn in school is rarely “neutral.” Did you detect assumptions or biases in what you were taught in school? How did you come to form your own opinions?