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Teaching Students to Talk Across the Aisle

To foster more productive discourse, educators must confront their own biases

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Does anyone feel good these days about the state of decency in American life? Whether it’s divisive, finger-pointing politicians, the daily “shout” shows, vicious cyberattacks on women and Muslims, hate crimes, or everyday social-media incivility, our public and community life is increasingly nasty and debased.

These problems, of course, have many roots, including the splintering of media into warring ideological camps; the shaming-fest of reality television; parenting and cultural trends that appear to have promoted narcissism and selfishness, and economic stress that has surely made many people more self-protective.

—Getty

But it’s also clear that schools have fallen short. Despite scores of programs and initiatives that have come in and out of vogue in schools over several decades—including character education, life skills, social-emotional learning, and anti-bullying programs—far too many adults lack the commitment and skills needed to be respectful, inclusive, and constructive community members and citizens. Nor have most schools found ways to reduce high rates of bullying, ostracism, sexual harassment, and other forms of cruelty.

There is much that schools can do to rectify this. Schools can, for example, utilize a growing body of evidence-based curricula and strategies that both support academic achievement and help children develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including empathy, social awareness, and self-regulation. Schools can become far more vigilant not just about touting respect or posting it on a wall, but also by training teachers to intervene effectively when a student, for example, says “that’s so gay” or calls a girl a “bitch” or a “ho”—words that are stunningly commonplace in school hallways these days.

Real progress depends, too, on schools and districts doing something they’ve rarely done: holding themselves accountable for promoting ethical character. Schools can use brief surveys to monitor whether students, for example, find the school community caring and inclusive and are developing greater concern for those who are different from them.

But there is another vital piece of the work: developing in students the capacity to constructively and respectfully engage those who don’t share their political and social beliefs. This capacity is not only fundamental to any healthy democracy but to the preservation of democracy itself. Many of us also need this capacity to be good neighbors, colleagues, family members, and friends.

I have been to schools in many parts of the country, and I have learned from hundreds of graduate students who have taught in these schools. It is hard to find schools that provide anywhere near fair, unbiased exposure to diverse political or social views. I recall walking into a middle school social studies class in the liberal Boston area, for example, and observing a teacher wearing a “No Blood for Oil” pin while leading a discussion about the Iraq war. Many schools in conservative communities never engage liberal views on many topics, including same-sex relationships and inequality. The distressing fact that far too many of us are living in bubbles is continually reproduced in our schools.

What to do? We’ll first need to be hardheaded about the challenge. After all, these conversations ask children to do something that we as adults seldom do: disagree respectfully with others on issues rooted in our core values. Teachers will have to decide whether and how to share beliefs that may be their lifeblood, as well as how to manage their own fears, angers, and biases.

"Educators need to confront dilemmas at the heart of our democracy."

But perhaps more important, educators need to confront dilemmas at the heart of our democracy, dilemmas that we rarely take on squarely in schools at any level. These conversations require teachers to navigate among basic human and democratic rights. Important as it is, for example, for teachers to promote the right to free speech and encourage multiple views, teachers also need to protect students’ right to freedom from discrimination.

And these two rights frequently collide. Teachers have asked me, for instance, if they should invite diverse views on same-sex relationships in a class when they have religious students who think that homosexuality is a sin along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual students who will not only feel attacked by this view but may be subject to harassment outside of class. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance when a teacher should elicit diverse views on immigration, including the view that undocumented immigrants should be deported, when undocumented students are in the class.

It’s vital, though, to find ways to at least have more of these difficult conversations in middle and high schools (and even at times in elementary schools, where controversial topics can unexpectedly arise in the classroom), given the stubborn reality that they’re not likely to happen anywhere else in children’s lives. And there are practices and guidelines that can mitigate harm and help make a wide range of conversations constructive. Educators can create clear classroom norms around these conversations, including assuming others’ good intentions, challenging ideas rather than people, avoiding sweeping generalizations, expecting mistakes, and appreciating the complexity of other people as one appreciates one’s own.

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Teachers can, too, access strong resources for facilitating these conversations, and they can start with simple exercises that build empathy and with structured debates on topics that are less likely to inflame, such as the ethics of eating meat or legalizing marijuana. In deciding whether to take up a topic such as same-sex marriage, teachers can consult with each other and school counselors not only about students’ safety but, given the particular composition of their class, about what burdens they should be asking students to bear and which students they should be asking to bear them. Schools might offer optional classes on highly sensitive topics and use brief surveys to assess students’ views about discussing them. In some cases, teachers will need to check with parents to see if they’re comfortable with certain classroom discussions. Given the complexity of the task, it may also make sense for only a few teachers in a school to be trained to lead especially fraught conversations.

These discussions will still often be uncomfortable and, at times, hit land mines. But that in itself teaches children an important moral lesson. We live in an age of morality lite. We rarely teach children that being a caring, ethical person isn’t simply about being nice. It’s often about the hard work of wringing moral truths out of the mud of many views and avoiding the smug, easy gratifications of demonizing others. It’s about staying true to fundamental ethical values such as standing up for the rights of others, even when we risk temporary alienation, even when it means sacrificing harmony and happiness. It’s about facing squarely our own blindnesses.

This work of reaching—and teaching—across the aisle is at the heart of a true moral education. And it is upon this work that our brave, imperiled democracy depends.

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