Learning About Polarization in School | Kent Lenci | 8 Min Read

I do not live in the most politically prejudiced county in the United States. That would be Suffolk County, Massachusetts, home of Boston. But I live next door, and my home county doesn’t fare much better. In fact, it ranks in the 99th percentile of the most politically intolerant regions in the nation — this, according to a study performed by the polling and analytics firm PredictWise and reported in the Atlantic in 2019. While I would have characterized my hometown as progressive rather than intolerant, I am reminded of the conservative writer, William F. Buckley, Jr., who is credited with saying, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

The Essex County school that employed me for 14 years is predictably staffed by a preponderance of progressive teachers. But they aren’t all left-leaning, and during my final year there I set out to explore the viewpoint diversity that had been generally overlooked in my time at the school. An institutional structure stood ready to house the work: an optional gathering of faculty to discuss a single topic related to diversity in education each year, known by the acronym IDEA. Precedent had established a calendar of roughly six annual meetings fueled by snacks and, sure, maybe a beer, beginning just after students left the building. In 2018 I volunteered to lead an exploration of political differences within the faculty. And then I held my breath.

It went surprisingly well. Each gathering featured a single, brave, conservative-leaning faculty member sharing the personal journey that informed his or her political outlook. Through those stories — of childhood, family, and work — we made progress. Tribal barriers softened as people empathized with their colleague’s reflections. One evening a presenter discussed his family’s cherished plot of land. With this land came challenges that required the use of a rifle, and stewardship of the land was a source of pride for the entire family. Gun ownership made sense. I doubt anyone in the room changed their mind about gun control, but for the first time, many in attendance could say they truly understood the motivation of someone who valued the Second Amendment.

Structure was our friend. Following each presenter’s initial narrative, we asked clarifying questions. “This is not an invitation to poke holes in the volunteer’s…

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Kent Lenci

Kent Lenci has taught, coached, and occupied several leadership positions at the middle-school level over the past 20 years. He is a recipient of various honors, including the Margot Stern Strom Teaching Award from Facing History and Ourselves and the NAIS Teacher of the Future designation. He earned his Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard University. Kent has presented at local and national conferences and written on the topic of connecting students across political divides. By virtue of temperament and experience, he is well suited to gently, purposefully, and humorously leading students and faculty members through difficult discussions. As founder of Middle Ground School Solutions, Kent recognizes that polarization has scarred the country and complicated our daily lives. It can feel tricky to maintain the role of impartial educator in the classroom, and our instinct may guide us to simply stay away from “politics” at school. In fact, though, the complexity of our national political landscape presents appealing educational opportunities. Kent encourages educators to practice the skills they wish to instill in students by reaching across lines of political and ideological difference.