Typically when I prepare to write a blog post, I do a little bit of research. I am very rarely, if ever, writing about something that someone else smarter or more experienced hasn’t already discussed elsewhere. I enjoy that research, even if it does require quite a bit of time and a lot of cyber-linking! But as we move out of the Republican Convention, into the Democratic Convention, and towards a hotly contested presidential election, I wanted to inoculate myself from outside information and speak purely from the heart about what role I believe all schools, Jewish day schools in general, and our school specifically should play in educating our students to appreciate and exercise their civic responsibility as members of a democratic society.
This will be my second straight swing state (say that five times fast!) election. Four years ago I was in Nevada and now I live in Florida. I recognize how passionate people are. I appreciate how emotionally-laden the conversation can become. The issues of the day are serious – war, the economy, social issues, etc. It is no surprise with the stakes so high that people can become extremely sensitive. Politics can also be personal and defenses automatically are raised. Watching the discourse fly back and forth on Facebook or Twitter, even with people I know well, can be disconcerting. It doesn’t take much for a conversation to veer off course into unkind territory.
Our responsibility as a school seems simple, straightforward and entirely non-controversial. We should educate our students as to how our political system works. We should teach them the history of American politics. We should instill in them the desire to participate fully in the political process and to proudly exercise their right to vote. We should encourage them to seek truth so that their beliefs and attitudes about how government should work (one of the definitions of “politics“) are rooted in objective reality. They should learn to be respectful of differing opinions and to always keep an open mind. And they should honor the office of president regardless of who holds it.
I can hear alarm bells ringing in people’s minds. We are not here to promote a political ideology. Our students should be largely, if not entirely, unaware of a teacher’s personal political leanings. We respect that our families represent the full spectrum of political viewpoints. But no matter how many times I’ve reread the above paragraph I cannot find anything in it remotely partisan or worthy of disagreement. And if you do, by all means write a “quality comment” and let me know.
For me, as an educator, the most difficult trend in political discourse, which impacts our ability to help students “seek truth” is the seeming inability to agree on an objective truth – about just about anything. This is particularly challenging in schools where the ability to develop critical thinking skills is amongst our highest responsibilities. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions. Or at least they used to be.
As facts themselves have been called into question, politicized, and debated, it makes it more challenging for schools to play their proper role. We want to provide students with the tools and skills they need to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion. Armed with facts, they can then form informed opinions. When we cannot collectively point to a fact and call it “fact” any hope for intelligent debate fades away. What is a school (or society) to do?
Presidential elections are an exciting time to be an American citizen. As an American Jewish day school, it is a powerful opportunity to demonstrate how to have complicated and important conversations in accord with our highest values. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of political affiliation! At the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School we will remind our students of that fact while encouraging their informed opinions.
To stay on the sidelines for fear of political correctness would be an abnegation of our responsibility. So all we can do is our best. We try to live up to our ideals. We teach facts. We provide respectful space for opinions. We encourage civic participation.
We witness history and celebrate the miracle of our democracy.