This blog was written by Aaron Kohrs (Center) of the Braver Angels Washington D.C. Alliance. You can contact him at email@example.com. It was edited by James Coan (Center), Co-Chair of the Braver Angels DC Alliance. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Education plays a major role in what our society thinks. While school is certainly not the sole source of information today, what we learn in school affects what we believe—politically or otherwise. Therefore, education should be a part of the solution to overall political depolarization. But it should not be the only solution, according to a K-12 education and depolarization panel (video here) hosted by the DC and Fairfax Alliances of Braver Angels, along with Bridge at Mason, the George Mason chapter of college depolarization organization BridgeUSA.
Moderated by Braver Angels DC Alliance co-chair James Coan, education experts Mike Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Melanie Meren, School Board Member of the Fairfax County School Board; and Mike Webb, Senior Vice President of Media & Marketing for the News Literacy Project, shared thoughts about the role of education in civic depolarization. While each panelist engages education policy in a different way, panelists agreed K-12 formation is a critical—but not the only—part of what should make up a depolarization strategy.
Petrilli, who promotes education policy on a national level, emphasized that the family should play a key role in ensuring children have the values of respect and proper civic engagement. Petrilli argues that schools, while important, should not be viewed as the primary source of socialization and political engagement. Parents must teach their children how to act—cordially—toward those of differing views. Petrilli points out that past generations’ views on sex and drugs have been largely shaped by society and media, not what is taught in schools, though he believes that schools should still promote healthy behaviors on a variety of topics relevant to depolarization, including healthy social media use and appropriate ways to have civil discourse.
Meren, an elected member of the Fairfax County School Board, spoke on behalf of herself and made it clear that a school’s responsibility should be strictly related to providing curriculum, not political training, though schools can have some role regarding reducing polarization. Often, she sees parents approach public education as the means through which all good solutions must surely come—learning, socialization, and morals. Yet, one of the biggest platforms for political polarization—social media—stretches beyond school walls and classroom hours. Teachers are challenged by the fact that students can engage, sometimes unwisely, on social media and can then bring that malcontent into their classrooms.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has responded to the online world that can exacerbate a variety of issues including polarization and adolescent mental health concerns. FCPS offers a digital citizenship curriculum that teaches students how to handle internet bullies and be responsible users of social media. FCPS also has an “away for the day” no cell phone use policy (through the entire school day for those K-8 and during instructional periods for those in high school) to encourage students to focus on instruction in the classroom instead of infinite online distractions. FCPS blocks many popular social media sites from its networks and laptops, and has expressed interest in joining a lawsuit against major social media companies regarding emotional harm that other nearby school districts have quite publicly joined.
Members of the public bring societal issues, like the appropriateness of books, into education in a way that detracts from actual learning, according to Meren. She sees political polarization “in real life” at school board meetings when acrimony toward the school board from the public can be inflammatory and divisive. Again, schools do offer approaches that can potentially lessen divisiveness, such as a regimented and clear public process for citizen input in regard to any policy that affects students, starting by contacting the school board office.
Finally, Webb shared his perspective of how news literacy can help students and the public better navigate political discourse.The ability to research and discern fact from fiction on the internet is a major part of political depolarization and a key component of his organization’s mission. Webb hopes that, through this learned lens, children and the public as a whole can better see that those of different views are not quite the monsters the “click-bait” internet makes them seem. In this political environment, many think “the other side of the aisle” is further from us than they really are.
The moderator Coan also provided the context that schools are an important part of political depolarization, though cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Ultimately, our schools are part of the rest of our society and if our politics are polarized, that will affect our schools. Schools do offer solutions that we must implement as part of a wider, societal action plan to depolarize politics.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of what a normal person can do to stop political polarization as relates to schools is to remember that, as Petrilli poignantly points out with Meren’s nod, that our children are watching. People can talk about depolarization all day long, but if they treat others with different views in highly negative ways, children will surely notice.