08/16/2011 09:57 am ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

Finding America's Narrative

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has come under fire for not expounding a narrative, or story line, to rally the American people around a compelling vision for the nation's future. In the New York Times, Drew Westen wrote that since Obama's inauguration, Americans have needed him "to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end." Less than a week later, former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer told NPR: "I think we all need a kind of Frank Capra narrative" from Obama. It certainly makes sense that Obama could do more to underscore the flawed policies that led to the recession and suffering of millions. But those who criticize Obama for his lack of a storyline come off as naively nostalgic. They make an important, but dangerously oversimplified argument by failing to acknowledge that stories can just as easily be forces of division and destruction as unity and momentum. In other words, it's not stories alone that we need, but a new approach to telling them -- and, just as important, to listening.

To understand the divisive power of narrative, one has to look no further than the ugly debate over school reform in America. I have written about that debate for the last decade, most recently in New Orleans. Since Katrina's floods devastated the city six years ago, no other public sector in the city has been so transformed as its education system. Over the last six years, state and local officials turned control of more than three-quarters of the schools over to private charter school operators who employ non-unionized teachers. New Orleans has become the nation's most comprehensive testing ground for a school reform agenda supported by a controversial group of leaders including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, an agenda that pushes for more charter schools, weakened union protections for teachers, and governance by technocrats.

It has also become a case study in how narratives can push people apart.

This summer, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported two important stories about the state of public education in the city. The first documented disturbing abuses at Abramson Science & Technology Charter School, one of the first to open after Katrina. The investigation uncovered an attempt by a contractor connected to the school to bribe a state official and sexual assault allegations that were grossly mishandled by school staff. What's more, as the story unfolded it became clear that a systemic lack of oversight over charter schools was at least partly to blame; that not only the school, but the regulators, had fallen down on their jobs.

The second story showed that for the first time since the data has been tracked, black students in New Orleans outperformed their peers in the rest of Louisiana. The milestone seemed to demonstrate that the city's charter schools, as a group, are making considerable academic gains.

Critics of the current direction of education reform embraced the story about Abramson, citing it as proof that the charter experiment is flawed, and should be ended. But they rejected reports of the closing achievement gap, claiming the data must have been manipulated, the statistics rigged. Meanwhile, the most diehard charter advocates dismissed the Abramson debacle as an anomaly -- hardly evidence that their reforms needed reform -- while they trumpeted news of the charters' academic progress to anyone who would listen. Too few people pulled the two stories together into a broader narrative that defied simplistic conventions of hero or villain, right or wrong, victory or defeat -- the kind of complicated story Capra never told.

Narratives have been used to divide us not only in the conversation about school reform, but just about every major issue facing the country, including health care, foreign policy, and, yes, the debt ceiling. We live in a nation where people treat their ideological leanings like unassailable theorems rather than hypotheses to be tested and complicated; where they seek out narratives that bolster their pre-conceived notions, and suppress or deny those that challenge them; and where the Internet makes this kind of anecdote-fueled extremism more omnipresent than ever. I wish the solution to our shared problems was as simple as telling a story. They certainly carry considerable power, and can help politicians gain the support to push forward seminal policies. This is not a diatribe against stories. It's a plea for those who tell them to avoid the temptation to speak only with a specific audience and narrow agenda in sight. And it's a request for those who listen to pay attention even during those unexpected turns of plot; the twists that make us feel uncomfortable, not assured; the inevitable places where we all must stretch our imaginations toward a kind of messy, unclaimed truth.