In Adrift: America in 100 Charts, author Scott Galloway makes the point that one reason the United States is losing its way is because many of us don’t talk to each other anymore. He points out that the percentage of adults who speak to their neighbors dropped from 71 percent in 2008 to 54 percent in 2017. The percentage of Americans who attend church, temple, or mosque dropped from 68 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2020—reflecting a loss of community that will be hard to replace.
“Studies of our interactions show that real-world interactions with others increase empathy and tolerance generally,” Galloway, a professor of business at New York University, writes in the book. “What degree of tolerance will we lose when we stop engaging with and integrating into our communities?”
Those numbers and Galloway’s sobering question are valuable reminders of how schools can play a vital role in helping all of us begin talking to each other again in meaningful ways—and, in turn, foster the kind of empathy and tolerance that will keep the country from drifting away from its better self.
In September, I wrote an essay for Education Week’s Big Ideas special report titled “Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other Anymore?” It examined why the K-12 field, and the country more generally, had descended in many communities into an environment of rigid, binary thinking and nasty, uncivil discourse.
The essay raised the question: What can schools do to upend this way of thinking? Here are 4 tips to get started:
1. Listen more and talk less.
It is that simple. I am a talker by nature so this can be a challenge for me and people I am in contact with. But two years ago, I made a vow to listen more to family, friends, and work colleagues, even people I hardly know. This change has been more empowering and refreshing than you can imagine. And I am getting far fewer complaints from my wife that I am interrupting her. Help your students learn to become better listeners—it will serve them well in their personal as well as their professional lives.
2. Scale back the use of social media and encourage students to do the same.
Let me be clear, do not take the extreme approach and just shut down your social media accounts or tell students to do the same. That is a form of binary thinking of its own, and the reality is that social media provides a good chunk of social good, too, although there are rising concerns about hate speech and misinformation on Twitter since Elon Musk took over the company. If you want to think more about why this might be a good approach, I highly recommend you read social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He argues that social media platforms are “perfectly designed to bring about our most moralistic and least reflective selves.”
3. Give kids opportunities to challenge their own beliefs.
One of the most fascinating and powerful examples I witnessed came about as the result of the youngest of my three sons’ participation in his high school debate team. On several occasions, he was handed a debate position to argue that he was at odds with personally. The opportunity to challenge his own beliefs opened his eyes to new ways of thinking, and he continued down that intellectual path on his college debate team. As a result, he entered the workforce a far more analytical, creative, and open-minded thinker than he would have been otherwise.
4. Teach students the science of how their brains work.
Doing the reporting for my Big Ideas essay was a fascinating intellectual journey and led me to a book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. Based on his extensive research, Kahneman explains that “fast thinking” leads people to make faulty, snap judgments based on limited or inaccurate information. People, then, lock in the belief, and that opinion gathers strength and emotion the more they argue in its favor. And, sometimes, that emotion rises to the level of anger and even violence. If we all learn more about how our brains work, we might be more likely to slow down—to pause and reflect before making those faulty, snap judgements.