Education for the New Commons

Exposure to Other Cultures Is a Start, But It's Not Enough

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The menu in a Utah school cafeteria lists tabouli and burritos among its lunch offerings. The members of a metropolitan Boston high school soccer team speak nine different languages. Students from a rural school in Vermont, many of whom have never been out of the state, take spring break in Belize to study the rain forest. Kids in a Mississippi elementary school bring up spectacular photos of the Pleiades from an observatory in New Zealand on their computer and e-mail their friends in Russia to do the same.

These are not isolated occurrences. Every reader of this Commentary can list a dozen more like them. We all live on a new commons where we rub shoulders with people practicing different customs, holding different ideas of what it means to be human. But while exciting for some, the prospect is frightening for others, for the new commons brings very real challenges. Thousands of jobs head south, the fault line between rich and poor peels apart, regional and class boundaries harden, the violence in our cities invades the heartland. No one feels safe. Understandably, we build walls. A school erects an 8-foot wall between itself and a neighboring apartment building to protect the kids from random bullets. A wealthy community walls itself in, posting armed guards at the gates to keep potential marauders out. A presidential candidate garners unexpected support for proposing tariff walls around our economy and concrete walls along our borders.

But whether we welcome or fear the future, we finally know that it lives on both sides of the wall. Build it as high as we may, we cannot enclose the new commons. Inevitably, our children will live with and among their brothers and sisters on the other side, and it is in everyone's interest that they learn to do it well--to be more at ease with its diversity, less overwhelmed by its complexity, able to act despite its ambiguity. We must raise a new generation who have more to offer their young than gunfire or a velvet cocoon. Schools cannot do it alone, but they do play a crucial role in preparing our children for life in the new commons.

For the past decade, our team has been studying the lives of over 100 people who practice the kind of citizenship we need for the 21st century, people committed to the whole of society, morally unwilling to wall themselves in or others out. We have learned how such people become committed to live and work on behalf of the common good rather than just for their own private welfare. We have asked two questions of their lives: "How did they get that way?" and "What keeps them that way?"

What we have learned is that there is no single path to this way of life, and there are many influences: publicly committed parents, caring neighborhood adults, teachers who see them as individuals, involved youth groups, travel, mentors, internships, networks of friends. But the single most common factor of all was experiences in which they became close to someone different from themselves. Virtually everyone told us stories of times when someone from another race, culture, community, or economic class taught them something profound and lasting about being human. They came to see the world through that person's eyes as well as their own, and the world became larger.

But simply encountering or even living with people who are different is not enough. There must be a human connection across tribes, an ethic that says, "Everyone counts." People are not born with that. They get it the old-fashioned way--they learn it--through experiences in their homes, communities, schools, and public institutions. Relationships with teachers matter to children, but in the curriculum of our lives, everyone is a teacher. Everyone matters. And we matter to one another. Public education is more than just our schools alone, but we can start there. As one person said, "You just take one step that makes the next one possible." What steps can we take now in our schools to make a difference?

Families can welcome people different from themselves into their homes. Parents can host exchange students or people from different ethnicities so their youngsters can see them model hospitality to the other. They can encourage their children to make friends with kids from different parts of town, different religions, different ethnicities. Those parents who work in settings with a diversity of employees can bring their children to work to see how adults can work cooperatively across tribe. They can seek religious and other community organizations that are characterized by inclusion, hospitality to the stranger, and generosity. They can encourage their children to join an ecumenical or multicultural youth group, or send them to a summer camp that promotes friendships across difference. They can support their school's efforts to celebrate its diversity and teach a range of different cultural values. In particular, wealthier parents can seek ways to make travel available to less affluent children in the community.

  • Teachers can take advantage of the cultural diversity in their own classrooms by creating exercises and opportunities for students of different backgrounds to walk in one another's shoes and learn to see the world from each other's differing perspectives. They can seek out and teach ways for children to resolve conflicts among themselves in ways that are both peaceable and educational. They can enrich young people's moral imaginations with books about the everyday lives of people in different cultures, the struggles of minority groups, or the biographies of visionary leaders. They can use videos or films that provide a view of the world as seen by a different cultural group, following it up with discussions about its relevance to their own lives. Correspondence with pen pals or e-mail with distant schools can make it personal and real.
  • Administrators can see diversity not as a problem but as an opportunity to teach the lessons so needed in our time. They can sponsor school and districtwide activities that encourage students to cross tribal boundaries, to visit one another's homes and neighborhoods, to make a conscious effort to see the world through others' eyes. They can recognize the particular power of travel as part of a good education, taking special care to find ways to support those who cannot afford it. They can encourage exchange programs for both students and faculty, develop "sister school" relationships with schools in other parts of the country or world, or bring in speakers from the community who have traveled or lived abroad. Service projects, either to help the school or for the benefit of the larger community are particularly important, especially when children of different backgrounds work together on a common task.
  • School board members need to represent many voices--students as well as taxpayers, teachers as well as administrators, the whole community as well as a particular constituency. They can model creative and positive dialogue for the larger good if they take the time to address the tribal boundaries among themselves, reflecting upon how they might improve understanding among their own members. If each member sought to take the perspective of other board members into account, rather than representing only a single point of view, then the school directors themselves could become teachers in the broadest sense, working to educate the community about the new commons on which we all stand.

Burritos and tabouli in the cafeteria are a start, but they are not enough. Exposure to other cultures is important, but children must have opportunities to build friendships over time and to deepen those relationships in settings where they can come to know one another as fellow human beings. Education for the common good may begin in our schools, but it cannot end there. In the world of the new commons, everyone has a part to play. We take the first step into the 21st century when we recognize each school as a "mini-commons" in which we all have a shared stake because it is here that we must learn to dwell together in the future.

Vol. 15, Issue 35, Pages 40, 48

Published in Print: May 22, 1996, as Education for the New Commons
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