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 to reach across lines of ideological or political division. In a nation, as the author Bill Bishop put it, of “balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible,” students will benefit from any training that helps them ford the divide. Will the kid from New England be willing to take that job down South someday? Depends on how comfortable they would feel living among the “others” across the Mason Dixon line. As with any other literacy, or a foreign language, it’s reasonable to believe that students who have some facility for cross-cutting communication and collaboration will expand their otherwise narrowing options for employment, housing, and companionship.

Our students individually will require the skills and dispositions to help them reach across lines of the divide, but the plain, inescapable truth is that our country also requires this of them. As the nation absorbed the Capitol insurrection of January 2021, a Twitter post read, “Every person knocking down those doors once sat in a classroom.” There will always be conspiratorially-minded people, and we will not eradicate extremism. But an attack on the seat of American government, perpetrated by Americans proudly waving American flags, reveals a societal disconnect so profound that it would be a dereliction of duty for educators to ignore the polarization that fueled it.

Long ago, I heard someone say that schools sacrifice the important for the urgent. We’ve certainly been facing the urgent: navigating a pandemic and helping students make sense of longstanding inequities that have given rise to grief-laden protests. But we must also turn to another (really) important matter: providing the foundation and training to equip our students to eventually ameliorate the polarization that, at this rate, threatens to undermine the very lessons upon which we are focused. Do we think we’ll address climate change strictly through the transmission of scientific facts, willfully blind to the furious political disagreement that topic engenders? How do we propose to do so, when higher scientific literacy is associated with more disagreement about the issue, rather than less? Do we truly aspire to build equitable and inclusive communities? I can’t see how that will happen without acknowledging the polarization that has suddenly — and, for many of us, surprisingly — turned “DEI” into a highly charged political term.

Education is not necessarily a ticket to depolarization. Ideological polarization is consistently more pronounced among better-educated people, and, according to Diana Mutz, those with graduate degrees have the least political disagreement in their lives. We school people bend over backwards to insulate our communities from all things “political,” when, in fact, it’s a futile effort. Our curriculum is “political.” Our messaging is “political.” We are preparing — or relinquishing our duty to prepare — our students to navigate a “political” world. And certainly, we ourselves are “political.”

To get serious, then, about equipping our students to reach across lines of the ideological or political divide, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. In recent years, independent schools have accepted that if they are to be places of anti-racist work, the professionals leading that work — teachers — must do their own learning. The same holds for the work that will position our students to ease the crisis of political polarization: it starts with us. What do we adults know about the psychology that drives group behavior? How healthy and varied is our news diet? Do we understand how media leverages our tribal instincts to amplify messaging? As we ask students to enter into discussions with those who hold contradictory viewpoints, have we, ourselves, practiced taking winning off the table by entering into dialogue with the political “other”? Do we even acknowledge that political diversity exists among our faculty?

I once found myself in a faculty meeting in which we teachers were challenged to create a “portrait of the graduate.” The expectations were loose — creativity encouraged — with the goal to visually represent a successful graduate of our academic program. It was backward design: picturing the end product in order to more precisely and purposefully define the academic program to lead us there. Since then, I have seen many iterations of the “portrait of a graduate” etched into the websites of a variety of schools. In most cases, schools use the word “portrait” loosely, relying on text to describe the key attributes of a successful graduate. Perhaps there is also value, though, in taking a more literal approach by showcasing a real human being whose lived experiences might guide our own aspirations.

Arlie Russell Hochschild could be that person. A sociology professor at the University of California, Hochschild authored a masterclass in empathy called Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is liberal — a left-leaning professor in the Prius-driving, organics-eating Bay Area of California. She registered voters in Mississippi as a young woman during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and progressive causes continue to animate her, including paid parental leave, environmental stewardship, and an end to homelessness. Hochschild is principled. And yet, she is curious — deeply, genuinely curious — about people who see the world differently from her. This curiosity carried her to southern Louisiana for several years to puzzle over what she called the Great Paradox: the seemingly illogical attitude of people who disdained and distanced themselves from the federal government, when, Hochschild believed, government care and attention could ameliorate their substandard living conditions. “I was discovering good people at the center of this Great Paradox,” she wrote. “How could kindly Madonna oppose government help for the poor? How could a warm, bright, thoughtful man like Mike Schaff, a victim of corporate malfeasance and wanton destruction, aim so much of his fire at the federal government?” To read Strangers, one is consistently reminded of Hochschild’s relentless attempt to scale what she calls the “empathy wall” that cleaves our society.

This is the wall our students will have to scale, and they will not learn how to do it without help from their teachers. It follows, then, that we educators must take on the work of emulating people like Arlie Russell Hochschild. Having left the classroom two years ago, my job these days is convincing schools that we educators must take responsibility for addressing the crisis of polarization, and in upcoming articles, I’ll lay out some suggestions, based on my experience and on the research, about how we can position faculty to lead those efforts. Friends School of Baltimore, from which I graduated, says, “The world needs what our children can do.” Our country, plagued by polarization, desperately needs what our children can do, if only we can find the courage and commitment to help them do it.

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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