Minerva’s reimagined commencement ceremony, Consequent, is intentionally designed for graduating students to demonstrate the critical thinking they have nurtured during their four-year education, through thoughtful debates on complex matters. From May 17–20, 2021, nearly 200 professionals from across industries and geographies joined the 180 graduating students for 60 conversations on provocative topics. The student moderators administered two polls at the beginning and end of each discussion, to see if people would change their minds on some of the most challenging questions humanity faces today.
In recent times, the tension of individualism vs. collectivism is a particularly salient concern, as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, where our personal decisions affect others as a matter of life-or-death. The pandemic has given rise to numerous debates about the power we give to our governments and other institutions and our relations to those within and outside of our communities. Here, we share data from three session topics that relate to the relationship of the individual versus the collective, as well as highlights from the major arguments made that may have influenced people to change their minds.
The merits and drawbacks of populism are hotly contested as populist leaders in the United States, Brazil, and India implemented lax pandemic policies, giving people the freedom to make their own decisions on pandemic precautions. Power to the people is a tenet of democratic society, but can this go too far? The key angles to the debate included:
Over the course of the conversation, the percentage of participants who agreed or strongly agreed that populism is inevitable in a democracy decreased, from 42% of participants to 24%. The percentage of participants who remained neutral, seeing both sides, increased from 22% to 35%. This could be due to the examples of democracies from around the world that participants referenced, that others may not have been familiar with.
On the question of whether populism places important decisions in the hands of the uninformed, the percentage of participants in agreement or strong agreement decreased from 35% to 26%, while the percentage in disagreement or strong disagreement increased from 33% to 40%. The conversation highlighted the importance of citizens having agency over decisions that affect them, regardless of qualifications.
Concern about data privacy heated up in new ways during the pandemic, as countries debated the use of data for the collective good, including purposes such as contact tracing and flagging misinformation. At the same time, people flocked to social media for connection while physically separated from others, sharing increasingly on “social entertainment” sites such as Tiktok and Twitch. The central questions raised were:
The percentage of participants who were neutral, or saw both sides, on the debate about whether loss of privacy is worth safety and protection fell from 43% to 30% over the conversation, suggesting that the debate helped people take a side.
On the question of government surveillance, the percentage of the group that agreed or strongly agreed that government surveillance should be restricted rose from 59% to 67%, indicating distrust of government usage of private information.
In the age of influencers and the “personal brand,” the ability to define one’s own identity can be empowering, or it can foster self-centeredness and even narcissism. The core issues in these sessions included:
There was little change over the course of the session in participant’s opinions about accepting people’s self-defined identities, with slightly over half (56%) of the group agreeing or strongly agreeing at both the beginning and end of the sessions. This could be explained by the fact that most Consequent participants, particularly Minerva students, have a lot of experience with people different from them, so their tolerance and understanding of differences is well-established.
On the question of whether self-actualization can go too far, the percentage of participants disagreeing or strongly disagreeing decreased from 35% to 24%, while the percentage who were neutral increased from 21% to 29%. There was significant discussion about the wording of the question, and what “self-actualization” looks like.
Thoughtful and respectful debate is a pillar of democracy, and ensuring young people understand its principles is crucial for societal function. While debate does not always lead to people seeing different perspectives or adopting different views, we have identified a few factors that might lead to a change in opinion.
Perhaps if we approach all complex problems armed with the right toolkit and actively seeking different viewpoints, we can develop more nuanced understandings, resulting in better collaboration and more creative solutions.