My school district here in Omaha, NE recently hired a new superintendent. I’ve had limited interactions with him since he started here but I do remember one of the first. Well, at least one of the first that wasn’t merely an acknowledgment of existence in the same building or a “What’s good for lunch?” while passing in the cafeteria here at work. Early on in his tenure, I was charged with explaining to him and our school board why we wanted to change our current Economics and Financial Literacy course into two separate courses. As I helped our new superintendent and our board get a grasp on the historical context for the course I made mention to how it was developed in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007 in response to a call from the public to teach more personal finance in the schools.
My superintendent said something that struck with me after my presentation. He jumped in before any of the other board members could respond or ask questions and he said he agreed with the idea of splitting the course for practical reasons but he wanted to make sure that everyone understood that the education system is not responsible for solving all of the ills facing society. He mentioned how he had to remind people in his previous school district that childhood obesity was not the fault of, nor would it be fixed by, a physical education program. So though our nation was still recovering from the stock market crash from a few years prior, it was not on the schools responsibility to keep another crash from happening.
That statement has stuck with me over the last few years because I cannot decide whether I agree or disagree with it. I mean there is plenty of truth to it. I taught economics for years before becoming an administrator and one of the first lessons we teach in econ is people make choices, their choices are responses to incentives, and our choices are manufactured through the systems that we operate within. The first statement about incentives favors what my superintendent spoke to. We can teach this stuff all day but people are going to do what they want with this information. Though the latter kind of stands in opposition because if we teach people about the systems that limit their choices the hope is that we will find answers that redefine or exceed those limits. So I wrestle with a resolution. Can education fix societies issues? If not, than how can we? If so, should it also be accountable for them?
The reason why I ask this question today is because I am looking at a society where political, or simply argumentative, discourse seems to be reaching new lows. Tolerance of ideas and opinions outside of your own isn’t even a consideration. In a time where it seems that everyone has a platform to share their thoughts, ideas, emotion, questions and philosophies we are faced with a world that is listening less and less. The irony of it all. I think back to the time where my mother would explain to me as a young man who was always a bit too talkative in class, “Boy, you keep running your mouth and ain’t nobody going to care what you have to say.” The early lessons of supply and demand. Here we rest today with all of these groups of people screaming and nobody listening. And whether you feel the Bern, want to build a wall, are a part of the 99%, refuse to give up your guns, or are with her, the real question for our society shouldn’t be if you agree or disagree with the person sitting across from you. The question should be do you understand them? And furthermore as Social Studies educators, is it our responsibility to teach students how to understand others.
You see, I read the article “Teaching in the Time of Trump” in the winter edition of Social Education and understand the difficult situation we are now in as educators with everything being so polarizing but we are charged with speaking to both poles. Or are we supposed to be teaching in the middle? Regardless of perspectives, our job is to teach tough issues and have hard discussions and to do so in a climate where students can find their own thoughts and actions while learning from their neighbors. They should also not be ridiculed or conversely made into a hero by doing so.
The difficult thing is we try to do that within a school system with our own school culture filled with rules and educational accountability about respect, classroom expectation about language, and systemic norms about responsibility. Our society does not reflect our education system’s values. Our society is full of choices that are incentivized by persona, individualism and bravado. It’s less personal in the sense that one can hide themselves in a digital reality. It is also more personal because you can build your own world that reflects your own interest within this digital reality. Our system isn’t like that. We push collaboration and force them to work with others that aren’t like them. Everything is standard even though we say we are trying to meet all of our student’s needs. Our system is not relevant to the society that our students enter when they leave our walls. It doesn’t translate.
So how do we get our focus of civic virtues, critical thinking, argumentative discourse, and my God, INFORMED action to translate from our classrooms to our society? Better yet, should that be our responsibility? Is our society’s ever increasing lack of tolerance a byproduct of or a resistance to our own system? These are questions that leaders should be considering. If you have some good ideas, I’d love to hear them.