Voices in Education

Can Education Fix Politics?
It’s time for those of us in education to revisit an old question: what’s our purpose? Some would say it’s to pass on what we know to the next generation.

That makes sense, provided we like what we’re passing on.

It’s hard to imagine that many Americans would want their children to inherit today’s toxic politics or to emulate the politicians who lie to the public, ignore science, peddle bigotry, and eschew civil discourse.

Not surprisingly, some students are doing just that. Last February, for instance, students attending a championship basketball game at Andrean High School in Indiana mimicked a popular presidential candidate, chanting, “build a wall” at their opponents from Bishop Noll Institute, whose students are mostly Latino.

And why wouldn’t we expect students to reject climate change, evolution, the use of vaccines, or science itself when some of their leaders do the same?

The point is that educators must be discerning about what we pass on. As the American philosopher John Dewey wrote one hundred years ago, “Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse…. As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future society.”

Enlightened schools do this by updating their curricula with relevant, useful content and by cultivating values like equity, critical analysis, and civil discourse. In addition to academics, they promote social, emotional, and moral development. They confront bullying and racism, teaching students to resolve their differences respectfully. They teach the value of facts and demand that students support their opinions with reasons and evidence—even when politicians don’t.

These schools aren’t engaged in partisan politics. The values they’re teaching don’t belong to political parties—they’re fundamental values of a democracy, which is why all public schools in America should foster them.

Enlightened educators also model good leadership. As I show in my book, The Courage to Collaborate: The Case for Labor-Management Partnerships in Education, a growing number of school boards, administrators, and teacher unions are working as partners, rather than as adversaries. They still disagree, sometimes vehemently, but they manage their disputes through trust, collaboration, and civil dialogue. Without the acrimony, the name-calling, and the gridlock, these educators are able to innovate, solve problems, and cultivate good teaching and powerful learning. Isn’t this the type of leadership we want students to learn?

About the Author: Ken Futernick is an educational consultant to schools, school districts, and policy makers across the United States. He is a cofounder and past director of the School Turnaround Center at WestEd, and is the author of The Courage to Collaborate: The Case for Labor-Management Partnerships in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2016).