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 story,” read our guidelines. “To the contrary, it is a chance to more deeply understand and appreciate that person’s point of view.” When those clarifying questions had been answered, everyone turned to a written reflection: “This section does not ask that you’ve changed your mind about anything, just that you record what you’ve heard.” Finally, we closed each session with a period of verbal reflection, during which attendees thanked the volunteer by showing that they had heard — whether or not they agreed with — what had been shared.

In retrospect, although I relied mostly on intuition to draw up the contours of that experience, research validates the approach (as a former colleague likes to say, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.”) According to the Greater Good Science Center, “It turns out that many conditions have to be met for contact to reduce prejudice, including having contact be sustained, with more than one member of the group, including a genuine exchange of ideas, and between individuals of similar social rank.” We nailed those conditions, meeting throughout the year and inviting a range of presenters, all of whom, by virtue of their common profession, shared a “similar social rank.” The focus on personal stories — as opposed to policy positions — was a good move, affirmed by a recent survey of studies showing that personal narratives more effectively bridge moral and political divides than do facts. Finally, the written reflection acted as a pause button, allowing for the “amygdala hijack” that Daniel Goleman once described running its course before yielding to reasoning.

If I’m being honest, I had the liberals in mind when I designed that professional development experience. The progressive majority in our school needed practice listening to and building empathy for people with whom they disagreed. The conservatives were just the foil, stepping up to perform a service; at least that’s the way I designed it. What I had not anticipated was the weight that would be lifted from the backs of those conservative faculty members as they shared their stories. 

In the years since that experience, I have told a number of educators that they are likely to house a small number of uncomfortable conservative teachers. People tend to bristle at that suggestion, their skepticism perhaps flowing from the belief that our political divide is essentially intellectual. We choose our politics, the thinking goes. If a conservative faculty member espouses policy positions at odds with the majority of their colleagues and, perhaps, certain tenets of the school itself, then that’s their choice.

This assumption misses the reality, though, that our divide is rooted in group membership. Yes, according to many measures, we are ideologically polarized, leading us to disagree about policy. But the more profound divide is affective polarization: we feel warmth towards members of the in-group and we feel animus towards members of the out-group. We sustain ourselves through the emotional nourishment of the group, and when we do not feel included, we suffer. One long-serving and highly respected former colleague experienced this alienation when politics and work collided:

After the 2016 election, my husband took a job on the presidential transition team. In a split second, almost all of my relationships at school came crumbling down. I was alone. I was a ghost in the hallways. No one wanted to interact with me. Certainly, no one wanted to hear my voice.

This teacher’s sense of isolation was not at its core ideological — she leaned right on some issues, yet she was dismissive of and repelled by some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. She did not suddenly find herself in acrimonious rows with her colleagues over policy proposals. Rather, her sudden estrangement was about belonging. It was dizzying to have been securely rooted in a school community for two decades before feeling abruptly cast out. After all, the students we see clinging desperately to each other as they move uneasily down the hallway eventually become us — or, we have always been them. We do not shed our need for social affirmation when we graduate. Evolution has positioned us to privilege group membership.

We teachers occupy positions on either side of the political divide, just like the rest of our fellow citizens. The bravest among us will recognize that the political sorting within our own faculties presents its challenges, but it also presents opportunities. Can a school afford to overlook the fact that a handful of conservative teachers feel a bit marginalized by their left-leaning communities? Certainly. But if it is serious about positioning students to reach across lines of the ideological or political divide, it should start by seizing the opportunity this dynamic presents for personal and professional growth. We want our students to have empathy for those with whom they disagree. Let’s try practicing it ourselves.

While it seems daunting to engage our colleagues — often, our friends — in these matters, it might not be so bad. For months, I’ve been anxious about a possible root canal. I made the mistake of visiting the website of an endodontist, where I read that root canals are unfairly “associated with a great deal of discomfort.” My dread remained intact. During my last visit, my dentist informed me that I “wasn’t out of the woods yet,” so I live with trepidation about this legendarily barbarous invasion of my cuspids.

According to social psychologists Charles Dorison, Julia Minson, and Todd Rogers, though, we humans tend to overestimate our aversion to all sorts of things — not just root canals, but also engaging with the political “other.” Opposing views are not as grating as people think they will be, meaning that when people actually engage in discussion with someone from across the political divide, it’s not the painful ordeal they expected. My experience confirms this finding. “Listening became a gift,” said one attendee of our IDEA meetings. “Colleagues left the space excited and invigorated by our exchanges,” said another. “I was blown away by the candid stories, and I was so impressed by the atmosphere of respect.” And, hyperbolic though it may sound, one right-leaning faculty member wrote, “I really was close to leaving my job…. I think IDEA saved me.” Rather than deflating attendees, our IDEA sessions seemed to have something of a leavening effect.

Perhaps this positive reaction among our faculty speaks to the more optimistic research suggesting that we Americans are not quite as divided as the national narrative would imply. More in Common, as their name optimistically suggests, focuses on threads that bind Americans across party affiliation, with their research, for example, showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans express pride in their American identity — a tie that binds. There is, then, some promise that it’s worth reaching across the lines of the divide to rediscover shared values and common goals. It is absolutely imperative, though, that the work begins with us educators. To position our students to meet the challenge of polarization, we have our own homework: readings to do, media sources to vary, bridge-building organizations to discover. And for the truly committed, transformative conversations await within school walls among faculty who may not know each other as well as they once thought.

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.

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