As the presidential inauguration approached and the new president’s first 100 days got underway, I found myself reflecting upon the past year—the primary season, the campaigns, the election itself and the continuing controversies and schisms that divide this country. When the outgoing president counseled the nation to “go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens—because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy” I admired the deliberate step away from partisan politics in his first message after the election.
As an educator, I’m aware that schools must continually foster civic values. Since the election I’ve been particularly concerned about reports that we’ve heard of decreasing civility and increasing intolerance, in schools and elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks these kinds of behaviors, reported over 1000 bias-related incidents in the month following the election—a significant increase.
Schools play a crucial role in nurturing open dialogue and developing the skills and habits of citizenship. When I recently paid a visit to an eighth-grade history class at my school, the teacher was leading his students through a complex discussion about the Articles of Confederation, exploring how that first government of the United States was organized, revealing the limitations that led to its failure. The students emerged from the class with a deeper appreciation for the purposes and structures of government, and a greater ability to evaluate its effectiveness. In a democracy, education develops future citizens’ capacities to exercise their rights and responsibilities—to consider issues, to debate, to advocate and protest, to select wise and capable leaders who will act in the best interests of the nation and its people. I saw the seeds of this sewn in that eighth-grade classroom.
Now more than ever, schools have a crucial obligation to teach the lessons of history and civic responsibility. It’s not enough to invoke the Constitution or the Bill of Rights as a cover for whatever ideological stance one wants to embrace—our future citizens must fully understand that the system of checks and balances in our national government serves an essential purpose; that the right to bear arms exists within a context; and that the rights to worship as we choose, to exercise freedom of expression and peaceable assembly, and to be informed by an unfettered press, were so deeply prized by our founders that they were enshrined as the primary fundamental rights of the nation.
Our schools must rigorously and uncompromisingly prepare students for their roles as citizens. They must teach students to think critically and evaluate the information and misinformation they are bombarded with daily. If we want to disentangle ourselves from the mire of partisan politics and gridlock, of infuriating disbelief in hard science, and of the rhetoric of suspicion and divisiveness, the future lies with our schools. In four years, 18 million young people who are now between fourteen and seventeen years old will be eligible to vote (Source: National Center for Education Statistics). Our nation’s schools have a vital task ahead of them—to arm those 18 million young people with the tools they will need to make decisions about our nation’s leaders based on record, not rhetoric; on specific plans and proposals, not sweeping generalizations; and on fundamental values that embrace inclusiveness, diversity, and an appreciation that the vast range of ideas and beliefs found in the United States does not diminish us—it enriches us and defines who we are as a nation.