How to end the school culture wars

Source: ‘Photo taken by Zoe Weil’

School board members receive death threats. School board meetings have become shouting matches. The national news regularly reports on the most local politics: school board elections in tiny districts.

The two main topics driving this whole conflict are COVID-based mandates for masking and/or vaccination and teaching racism in social studies classes. This post is about the latter.

My neighbors in my rural community, whom I met recently, have offered me an unsolicited ear on what is happening in schools. Since we were just catching up with our respective adult children and the difficult times we live in, I didn’t see it coming. But then, with passion and anger, they suddenly talked about the end of free speech at school board meetings, about how teachers tell kids that white people are bad and that we shouldn’t be teaching values ​​at school.

There was almost no room to say that it just wasn’t true that teachers were telling kids that white people are bad. And I couldn’t say that I thought free speech was certainly alive (but not well) at school board meetings, or that we’ve been teaching values ​​in schools since the first school opened. I used the few moments I was able to say a word to say that as someone working in education, I felt the media shared extremes that do not represent reality . I also said it was important for children to learn the history of slavery and Jim Crow. These comments seemed extremely sweet and uncontroversial to me, but even they were too much for my neighbors. They told me that they knew the history well and that black people in America also owned slaves.

I left stunned, nauseated and increasingly determined to bring a framework of solutions to schools.

The solution framework

A single-minded approach to solving social justice issues has the ability to stop the arguments, hyperbolic language and brainwashing attempts of polarized factions in society, which tear communities apart and make it impossible to discuss and implement solutions. solutions to problems.

How does the Solution Framework achieve these goals and why should schools adopt it? The following offers an example based on the issue of racism that could turn fighting into cooperative problem solving.

Rather than debating indisputable assertions about the existence of structural racism or statements like “Teachers tell kids white people are bad,” the solution process begins with identifying a real problem based on established empirical evidence. Since there is a consensus among the majority of expert social scientists in the field that there is structural racism in the United States and that institutional practices and laws perpetuate racial inequalities, the process of solution invites students (middle and high schools in this case) to do the following:

  1. Identify a real manifestation of the problem, whether in their own school (perhaps a disciplinary policy that unfairly targets black students), their community (perhaps zoning laws that have created segregated schools), their state ( perhaps passing laws or gerrymandering disenfranchised black voters), or their nation (perhaps constitutional protections are not sufficiently respected).
  2. Conduct extensive research to understand historical and current contributors to the problem.
  3. Talk to stakeholders and experts who are working to solve the problem and whose views represent different perspectives on how to do it.
  4. Determine leverage points for change.
  5. Collaboratively design solutions that address the causes of the problem and do the most good and the least harm for everyone, while focusing on those most affected and disadvantaged.
  6. Implement solutions, evaluate them and improve them.
  7. Share successes to spread positive change.

The solution process requires in-depth inquiry, which means young people learn important research skills and become good critical thinkers. It also requires them to seek to understand the causes of the problem, which leads to the development of systems thinking skills. To be successful, they must also become strategic, which fosters the building of bridges, better understanding and collaboration.

In order to resist the incessant media and political propaganda that would annoy us with such nonsense as the claim that teachers tell children that white people are bad, or take at face value the proposition that schools should not teach of values, a solution framework fully engages teachers and students in the exciting and meaningful work of finding common ground in the effort to build schools, communities, and a country dedicated to greater justice based on shared values ​​that students can name themselves.

Few, if any, would argue that values ​​such as compassion, fairness, integrity, kindness, honesty, and perseverance are not good qualities in which to live, but even these do not have need not be imposed on students. Young people themselves can identify the values ​​they deem worthy. I guarantee you that none of them will say bigotry, hatred or oppression. After asking thousands of young people what they consider to be the best qualities of a human being, no one has ever named such things.

When we seek to discover and develop solutions to our problems with our agreed values ​​at the forefront of our minds, amazing things happen. When common values ​​are embraced, there is receptivity to different perspectives and stakeholders. Then, the solutions imagined by the young people come from collaboration despite the differences of opinion or background. It’s not that it’s an easy or smooth job. It’s messy. But because the goal is to find solutions, rather than win an argument, the work leads to answers that almost everyone can agree on. It also helps students find and build a community of solution-oriented people.

Since young people can learn to effectively create solutions to our problems, shouldn’t we embed such a process in schools? Wouldn’t that not only benefit our children, but also our communities, our nation and the world? Such an approach would also lead to a population that could finally tire of the shouting that divided communities and created even more stress among teachers. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated professionals who work to prepare students to be the best versions of themselves that they can be and to become full citizens in a nation – and in the world – who needs their good spirit, their big heart, their well-being. developed thinking skills and experience in solving real problems.

We may not be able to employ a solution process in a conversation with neighbors. We can often struggle to maintain a solution mindset in the face of such a polarized society. But we can and should integrate the solution framework into school curricula. This provides our children with the best preparation to build a future where they and all people, animals and nature can thrive, and where we can end our culture wars and create a culture of understanding and peace.

Carol C. Reed