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…