Through the Looking Glass of Depolarization: Part I | Kent Lenci | 7 Min Read

If I learned nothing else during my 20 years as a middle school teacher, it was that children of that age are intensely social, almost single-mindedly hellbent on securing a slot in the social order. The fortunes of these young people can change quickly. Monday morning might find them unaccountably excised from a previously secure group of friends, leaving them bewildered and bereft. To guard against such eventualities, they lock arms as they march down the hallway like a steamrolling wave of social security. For many years, I was quite sure this behavior was unique. It was not until I had taught these children for two decades and coached 41 seasons of sports that I realized that I had been mistaken. In fact, the intense need for social affirmation and acceptance that defines middle school is not a stage through which one passes. It is not a skin to be shed on the way out of adolescence. It’s training. We are the products of that training.

We are also the victims of it. We have become a polarized society, bound unconditionally to those on our political team and mistrustful and dismissive of those on the other side. We cling to our teammates, with whom we share a common purpose, and we recoil from our opponents. We display tribal badges to reserve our place on the team and we rage at the sight of our opponents’ markings. The evidence of our national polarization and the dysfunction it causes is everywhere, so obvious now that it hardly requires explanation.

It’s tempting to lay the blame for our current malaise at the feet of Donald Trump, the nation’s most divisive president, because in that case, our affliction may be fleeting — or even a thing of the past. Alas, President Trump’s polarizing effect — and his embodiment of our own polarization — affirms a trend that was already well in the works. The forces that drive our polarization are deep. We are hardwired to seek group acceptance, and societal structures leverage that psychology to more deeply entrench us in a morass of division. Our national condition, this debilitating polarization, is not mending, and we owe it to both our students and our society to address the crisis through education.

One could make a transactional case (I come to your school, and in return, I get this skill) for empowering students…

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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.