By Liz Vogel, Los Angeles Director, Facing History and Ourselves
School’s out and the U.S. presidential election season is just heating up. The divisive rhetoric that characterized the primaries now finds a foothold in the general election. Beyond the usual passionate political discourse, we’re experiencing a widespread breakdown in civil discourse that won’t end at the polls, and is likely to dominate the dialogue in Cleveland and Philadelphia. As a leader in a non-partisan education organization, Facing History and Ourselves, I want to address the impact of this discourse on the millions of Americans who can’t come to the polls because they are too young to vote.
At a time when we see an uptick in civic engagement and potentially voter turnout, the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent assessment of students’ civic competency revealed that only 23% of American 8th graders are proficient in civics, and only 18% are proficient in American history. This means that young people are not drawing upon sufficient knowledge to understand what makes a democracy strong, and what can tear it down.
As digital natives, young people are, however, absorbing campaign rhetoric at the same time they are forming how they think, who they are, and what it means to interact with other people. So, what does it signal to our children to see that bigotry, bullying, and hate speech, which is not tolerated at school, pervades the highest level of politics in our country? How do we engage with our children to make meaning of what they are seeing and hearing?
You may think young people aren’t really paying attention to the election. But a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed 2,000 educators who reported that many students, especially immigrants, children of immigrants, Muslim, African American, Latino and other students of color, are alarmed about what might happen to them and their families after the election.
One high school teacher in Helena, Montana said, “Students are hearing more hate language than I have ever heard at our school before.” Some students have adopted the threats and slurs they’ve heard in campaign speeches as their own, such as calling Muslim students ‘terrorists,’ or using the phrase ‘dirty Mexican.’ A Michigan middle school teacher described an exchange that followed an anti-bullying assembly: “I had students tell me it [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’”
There is a growing sense in the U.S. that straight talk, or ‘telling it like it is,’ is progress in contrast to political correctness. In his recent Washington Post article, Max Ehrenfreund leads with the claim that “Americans now think it’s OK to say what they really think about race.”
But how we talk about things matters, and we are not well-equipped. In the name of ‘telling it like it is,’ we’ve done away with civility. Sure, we can share our views easily with those who already agree. But civil discourse is different, and it’s critical to our ability to function as a democracy.
How do we express our personal opinion while also leaving room for someone else’s opinion? How do we distinguish opinions from facts? How do we engage when we may be embarrassed to let on that we don’t have all the facts? How can we seek out those who hold different beliefs from our own and try to understand their point of view?
Young people need to be taught these skills, especially how to disagree respectfully, a behavior they are not seeing adults – often including their own family members – model in real life, on social media or elsewhere. Look at the comments under any opinion piece, including this one, most likely. Disagreeing with someone means disavowing that person, attacking their character, and worse.
How can we practice civil dialogue in an era of angry monologues? We need more conversation, not less. More civic education, not less. This fall, teachers will return to classrooms with an opportunity to engage students in critical conversations, and they deserve support in doing so. But let’s not wait. This isn’t about being polite. We need to be clear-eyed about the impact that bitter division, unchecked, can have on the development of young minds and hearts and offer alternatives. There are practices that all of us who have children in our lives can do to support them right now.
Start with the premise that there is knowledge to be shared, and knowledge to be learned. This will allow you to lead with inquiry, invite self-reflection, and engage without attacking. One example is to approach a challenging topic with a series of three questions: What do you know? How do you know? What do you still want to know?
Words matter, and we must equip our children with language that is civil and inclusive. We must do better than the status quo. What’s at stake is nothing short of the survival of our democracy. Asking more and better questions, thinking critically, developing informed judgments, learning to listen and empathize ― these are the skills we desperately need to develop in our young people, and ourselves.
As both main political parties gear up for their conventions and hard-fought campaigns, let’s look for opportunities to model civil discourse – particularly around areas of conflict – and commit ourselves to behaving in a way that will teach our kids something constructive and positive. Learning how to face each other, is a lifelong gift we can give to our children.
Liz Vogel is Los Angeles Director of Facing History and Ourselves, a global educational organization that reaches millions of students and tens of thousands of teachers each year to teach them about dialogue, compassion, and empathy.