Educating Students to Understand and Impact Their Time

On the eve of Election Day, I experienced one of those moments that stop you in your tracks, and force you to linger on your thoughts to puzzle them out!  

The Director of a leading Montessori teacher training program nationwide put out a call to vote in this “most important of elections.”  Her email contained the sign pictured here.  Initially I pondered whether it was inappropriate for the Head of an organization responsible for teacher training to be so evidently partisan.   Mulling this for a few moments, I realized that the problem lay in my own understanding of partisanship in the message!  While the sign itself had sent an obvious left-leaning message to me, the primary tenet, that all people are created equal, might be the most recognizable of all American ideas.   

This letter of condolence from an Afghan military commander to the wife of a Utah mayor killed this past Saturday on a tour in Afghanistan conveys just how much power the American message, “All People are Created Equal,” can wield.

So, how do we begin to dial back the feeling of partisan ownership of the bedrock ideals of the American constitutional undertaking?   How do we change “In Our America” back to “In America”?   I believe we are all responsible, Democrats and Republicans.  We all need to change our rhetoric.   For those of us in education, we need to look at how deeply and deliberately we are engraining in children the idea of respect and the idea of free debate.  Maria Montessori wrote: “An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live (emphasis added).” (Montessori: Education and Peace)

Both sides in the political debate today have allowed the national “conversation” to turn into one about people rather than policies.  It is easy to point the finger at vitriolic fear-mongering rhetoric designed to stir up hate.   Admittedly, there has been plenty of this!   However, one of the most regrettable comments from the 2016 campaign was the characterization of half of Donald Trump’s supporters as being in the “basket of deplorables. . .racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic. . . .”   It is time to acknowledge that this does not explain the continued ability of Republicans to maintain a fairly equally divided Congress.   If we don’t, and instead we satisfy ourselves with an idea that about 50% of the American electorate is racist or sexist or otherwise opposed to the bedrock equality principles of America, we will remain blind to the work necessary to “prepare our students to understand the times in which they live.”

There are two steps I believe we must take in education.   First, undoubtedly, we do need to ensure that the largest possible group of our students believe that “All People Are Created Equal.”  Even the best prepared students for our global world will be faced in their maturity or adulthood with so-called “culture clashes” and uncomfortable gaps in shared experiences with someone or a group of people whom they meet.   Even liberals might be reinforcing these “gaps in shared experience” unwittingly. (For more, see my Affinity Groups post.)    A recent article highlighted the need to value CQ (cultural intelligence) along with IQ and EQ.   From a workforce perspective with adults, the article’s prescription was the unlearning and putting out of mind any subliminal cultural assumptions or biases.   At Torit, we start from the easier place of cultivating CQ in young students by teaching the languages of Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish and ensuring that our students learn about cultural traditions very different from those they may live at home.   At very young ages in Montessori, students study geography and culture worldwide.   Positive experiences and fact-based learning are the most reliable ways of eliminating unidentified biases and assumptions.  The Montessori Great Lessons for Elementary students introduce timelines of human development and thought across the myriad of cultures.  We entrust 6 - 9 year olds with the vast human expanse of both mythological and scientific explanations for human experiences.   However, this won’t fix the problem.

Second, and likely more difficult, we must confront students with ideas and opinions that truly differ from the understanding of the majority in their peer group.   What is the well-articulated “other side”?   Here is the hard part:  this means that if we teach in a very progressive community, we must advance the very best defended conservative ideas for our students to mull.  Conversely, in a conservative community, teachers should advance the best articulated cases for liberal ideals.  Students must be exposed to high quality debate.  This is scary and difficult for most adults because we have trouble separating and analyzing the well-argued opposing positions from those filled with heated rhetoric — we have developed our own adult biases against certain positions because we cannot separate idea from speaker or rhetoric.  But we must!  Otherwise, as I so often hear, adults are not preparing children to talk in ideas. . .instead, adults are throwing up hands saying, “What are those people thinking?” 

Only when we find ourselves discussing conflicting ideas rather than falling back on the assumptions of character flaws in our fellow Americans will we be preparing our students for their time.  Understandably, as a parent, you wish to influence your child to share your idea(l)s. . ..but be careful that this does not leave him or her without the tools to match idea with idea.   Parents might worry that children are incapable of hearing both sides without being unduly influenced.   In Montessori, we have a deep respect for the capacities of the child’s mind.   We have to take a leap of faith. . .we must believe that it is only when we are unprepared for the battleground of ideas that we turn to vitriol and personal attack.   Teaching the skill of ideological debate is one prescription for dialing back today’s politicization of the “American ideal.”   I, for one, continue to believe that most (even if not all) of the American electorate, on both sides of the political aisle, still believe deeply in the principles “All People are Equal.”   Therefore, limiting the espousal to “In Our America” might not be helpful.   To enable us to remain everyone’s America, we must force ourselves to dig deeper to articulate our opinions.

Author Kristen Hanisch Mansharamani is a graduate of Yale University with a degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics.  She also holds a degree from Harvard Law School.   She has two children and recently gave her 7 year old a vocabulary lesson in the words “bipartisan” and “coalition.”   Kristen founded Torit Montessori School.