Through the Looking Glass of Depolarization, Part II | Kent Lenci | 8 Min Read

“Hey Mr. Lenci, want to hear a political joke?” Recess ended, and seventh graders arrived in a flurry of Goldfish crumbs and cold air. Abby, armed with her backpack and a sense of humor, bounced on her feet in anticipation. “So you’re ready for the political joke?” I was. “OK, wait for it.” Pause. “Donald Trump!”

At the time — it must have been the winter of 2016, with the Republican convention still many months away — Donald Trump was a political joke among those across the political spectrum, and here was a student of mine, all 12 years of age, piling it on. I was flooded with questions: Do I laugh this off? Does the idea of neutrality require that I issue some equivocating statement (“Well, not everyone thinks that…”)? Is there some threshold of political gravitas for a candidate to reach, at which point joking becomes political commentary? Has Trump reached that level? If so, do we need to steer clear? What will other students read into my response? Are there any Goldfish left?

I think often of that moment. Intuition led me to affirm the jokester (“Ha!”) and move on quickly. But what a difference a year would have made. At what moment did Donald Trump transition from a business mogul/reality show celebrity to a legitimate political figure? Once that transition occurred, did new rules of engagement apply to discussing him in school? Was his behavior as a private citizen open to critique within the classroom (in the same way a sports star might be)? Were students and/or faculty then prohibited from commenting on his behavior once he had passed into the realm of the “political?” If so, why? What are the guardrails for political commentary in schools or, more broadly, dialogue across lines of difference?

As far as I am concerned — as I said in the first article in this series — pretty much everything is “political;” the instinct to stay away from topics or discussions that could be deemed “political” is, I believe, unproductive. Setting aside that assertion for a moment, though, we can hopefully agree that it is advisable to prepare our students to navigate — and possibly mend — our polarized society. It follows, then, that we must provide them opportunities over the course of their education to reach across lines of ideological difference. If we are to lead that work among our students, we too, have our own work to do. 

A school that values this work must engage in thoughtful professional development that includes purposeful training and reflection on the part of individual teachers. As educators, we are products of and participants in the same polarized society that looms ahead for our students. We occupy political echo chambers and rely on one-sided media just like everyone else, and we carry our political and tribal allegiances into the classroom. No playbook reminds us what to say if our 12-year-old student makes a joke out of the future president of the United States, and the challenge of finding our own way through our polarized society — let alone preparing our students to do so — feels daunting. We need guidance.

At some point, we educators need to hold up a mirror and take stock of our own tribal allegiances and political biases… but that introspection can wait. To ease into the work, we would do well to first study the challenge of polarization from a more detached, intellectual level. The Greater Good Science Center’s “Bridging Differences” initiative is an excellent source for pithy and accessible summaries of research into the psychology of in-group favoritism, and a slew of articles, including “Six Techniques to Bridge Differences” would jumpstart a productive faculty meeting on dialogue across difference. The Pew Research Center provides one-stop shopping to examine the trend of deepening polarization, and Open Mind (“a scalable, evidence-based approach to constructive dialogue”) has assembled a robust library of videos, essays, and scholarly articles organized by theme that could also provide fodder for a faculty discussion. There is no shortage of resources to help us educators understand the challenge of polarization from a psychological and political standpoint. If we are to equip our students for this challenge, we must first understand it.

To bring the challenge closer to home, it works well to present faculty with hypothetical scenarios in which an ideological or political divide insinuates itself into the school community. Should a faculty member be permitted to display emblems that could be considered political? How do we respond to a parent who challenges the presence of those symbols in the classroom? What about the parent who bemoans the dearth of conservative viewpoints at school? Tossing out these types of scenarios virtually guarantees a lively discussion. To keep the train on the tracks, though, requires some structure. I’ve been well served by first asking what feels challenging about a given scenario.

That’s the easy part. Let’s imagine: last year, one student’s signature background featured a MAGA banner, while another displayed a Black Lives Matter flag. Kids were distracted; parents complained; it became a great big thing — no shortage of challenges. In this hypothetical situation, one response to those challenges might have been to ban the Trump banner because politics and school don’t mix. It wouldn’t take long for a minority of parents to then complain that certain speech is favored while other (conservative) speech is silenced. The school would counter that affirming the value of black lives is a moral imperative and utterly apolitical. Familiar battle lines would be drawn, and an unnecessary and unproductive skirmish, mirroring the polarization of our society at large, would ensue. Unproductive, because while stating that Black Lives Matter is a simple statement of moral clarity, it is also, for some people, a political statement. These are not mutually exclusive, and, deciding that both symbols could be construed as political statements, some schools might find it easiest — even if unpalatable to many — to just ban them both.

But snuffing out conversation before it begins moves us no closer to our long-term goal of preparing these students to face a divided country. If we can resist the knee-jerk reaction to squash disagreement by removing the source of that disagreement, opportunities do present themselves. In the case of the dueling Trump and BLM symbols those opportunities could include: revisiting the shared norms that govern classroom (and Zoom) dialogue; consulting the First Amendment; discussing the legal limitations of free speech within schools or in society more broadly; examining the painful history that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement; trying to understand — really understand — the motivation and lived experiences of each student at the center of the controversy; listening, and then listening some more.

A couple of months before the 2020 presidential election, when the national atmosphere could not have been much tenser, I included a “what-if” in one of my workshops:

Imagine it’s November 2020. President Trump has won reelection. A jubilant student comes to school wearing a MAGA hat, although hats are prohibited by the school’s dress code. You are feeling personally vulnerable at this moment, and the hat triggers a visceral response within you. You feel paralyzed by the sight of it. How, if at all, do you engage the child?

That stirred the pot. The teachers in that particular workshop were anguished at the prospect of a Trump victory, and the word “jubilant” stopped one attendee in her tracks. “Wow,” she said. “That would honestly make me wonder if I belonged at that school.” For months afterward, I found myself returning to her response and the questions it provoked: What does it mean to belong at a school? Does belonging require agreement? What place, if any, is there for a member of the community who holds viewpoints in opposition to the majority?

It’s time for schools to provide a forum for teachers to consider these types of questions, and school leaders should expect to provide answers to some of them; a lively discussion is, for many, also a waste of valuable time if it leads no closer to a shared understanding of how to equip students to navigate our polarized society. Teachers deserve to know what the word “political” means at their school and whether the school believes that “politics” and education are compatible. Teachers deserve guidance as to whether it’s appropriate to share their own political opinions (I am inclined to say probably not; in his essay, “Making a Case For Teacher Political Disclosure,” though, Wayne Journell makes a very creditable case as to why teachers should share their politics with students).

The most vexing question for many of the teachers I’ve talked to comes down to this: Where does it all end? If we encourage students to honor contradictory points of view, do we in essence welcome an endlessly subjective morality in which, in the name of ideological diversity, nothing is out of bounds? Teachers need to be gently led back out of that rabbit hole by their school leaders. Building our sense of empathy for those who hold contradictory worldviews does not require us to dilute our standards of care and respect. Do we allow a child to carry a Nazi banner into school to prove that competing ideologies are welcome? Of course not. We don’t, because that emblem is irredeemably offensive, and no reasonable person would consider it to represent a legitimate perspective that deserves to be aired among school children. It’s OK to draw lines in the sand. And to the school leaders or teachers who then ask, But how are we supposed to know what is and is not acceptable in this realm? Who decides? The answer is, you do. 

I am somewhat uneasy that, for many educators, the challenge of polarization feels less urgent than it did a year ago when all sights were set on the impending presidential election. There’s less risk of another Abby coming into class with her political joke this fall and, consequently, causing a stir that reminds us of our national divide. But the divide has not gone anywhere, it will not mend itself, and our students must be equipped to face it. If anything, the current, slightly less combustible political moment may in fact be all the more reason for us to carefully and thoughtfully curate opportunities for our students to reach across lines of the divide; we may not be ambushed by flare-ups of ideological disagreement, so let’s be sure to offer students opportunities to practice their bridge-building skills in anticipation of the flare-ups that will come their way. The journey towards depolarization begins in schools, where our work, by necessity, starts with adults.

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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