If We Want A Civil America, Teachers Must Take The Lead

Portrait of confident senior woman in adult education classroom
Portrait of confident senior woman in adult education classroom

As we emerge from the meanest and most divisive election in U.S. history, pundits in the media are scratching their heads, wondering how our country can possibly come back together again. I have a tried and true solution that has worked in the past and can work again, if we give it a chance. And that is to empower America's teachers to help "instruct" America back to civility. They have the soapbox and opportunity - with the daily, captive attention of millions of American children - to teach civility and respect. In the process, perhaps our children can teach the rest of America how to play nice in the sandbox. We do listen to our children!

Many journalists have observed that America has gotten what it deserves; the nastiness of Trumpism arose from decades of disrespect, ignoring and pushing down large portions of the electorate. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal called them the "unprotected class." I agree with this characterization - whether it is in the form of not getting a return call from a congressman or from a cable company, respect has plunged and plummeted in our country.

But I have another explanation, and it has to do with our educators and schools. Forgive me for my armchair history, but I believe that this brief review is important.

Forty plus years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as several lower courts, handed down a series of church-state decisions, teachers stopped teaching values. They did so for good reason: school boards, principals and other administrators told them that values could be construed as being religious. "Whose values are you teaching?" a school principal once asked me. School boards feared push back - even lawsuits - from aggressive parents, both the secular and the religious, who potentially disagreed with the "teacher's values."

The school boards didn't realize that values aren't necessary religious. And, that values are the essential building-blocks to guiding civil dialogue, respect, collaboration and a whole host of actions that make the our country work the right way - with civility, respect and mutual regard.

Almost twenty years ago, politicians who dolled out the money for schools took more power away from the classroom teacher. They asked teachers to teach to the test, and they implemented rigorous tests to even-out state and local education standards so that there would be "no child left behind."

Again, teachers were put under pressure to stick to a rigid curriculum and a pace that precluded their focusing on both character and performance. Teachers - especially in high schools which are catalysts for future moral development - became reluctant to pull students away from their "hard" curriculum to participate in character-education programs, in-school workshops and the like that emphasized character and values.

Why? Because teachers aren't evaluated (nor are schools judged) on the soft-skills; they're marked and ranked on their state report cards based on how they teach the hard skills. Yet, ask most employers today what predictably builds success in their employees and they'll tell you that it's the soft skills that do. The K-12 education system has done all of us a huge disservice.

Enter reality television, the internet, text messages and other media that prevent honest face-to-face conversation and encourage public humiliation -- and here we are. A country that doesn't know how to talk to itself and a political system that often doesn't care. What has ensued to fill this gap is a system of conversation and relationship-building that feeds on a steady diet of disrespect, disregard, lack of caring and incivility. Voila, the United States of America in 2016!

The Trump movement, in part, is a product of and response to this values void, and so are a majority of Americans who have grown up under an education system that has ignored values and media that have diminished them. During the span of the last forty years, some Baby-boomers, all Generation X's, all Millennials and some Generation Z'ers have gone through America's values-starved education system. These by-and-large are the workers, executives, teachers, leaders and politicians of today. Values become the throw-aways when performance -- political or otherwise -- is on the line.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming the teachers. They're part of a hierarchal system where the school boards dictate to the superintendents, who dictate to the principals, who dictate to the department chairs, who dictate to the teachers. We expect teachers to dictate to the students, but how they do so is tightly controlled. Teachers are low on the totem pole. They're principled, no doubt, but they have little flexibility.

Occasionally, a master teacher emerges who turns this model on-end because his or her passion and convictions are persuasive and contagious. Erin Gruwell, subject of the movie "Freedom Writers," took inner-city students who allegedly couldn't read or write and had them publishing stories based on their life-and-death struggles and moral turmoil. She went up against the system and was almost ejected from her public school post because she bucked policy. But she succeeded in teaching values to the kids.

A few months ago, I met another such outstanding teacher, Greg Davis, who teaches at The Wellington School, a private, Columbus, Ohio school that supported his efforts to host a "Civility Day" for all middle school students to discover the right way to dialogue in a contentious election season. Most teachers across the country just ducked talking about the election because it was too uncomfortable to discuss with students.

But Mr. Davis courageously felt that the election was a teachable moment. He called me after finding out about the Purple Tent that Values-in-Action Foundation and Purple America hosted at the Republican National Convention. In the Purple Tent, political adversaries and thought leaders came together to discuss civility and common ground by using the lens of our shared American values.

Emphasizing these shared values, relying on experiential exercises as well as prominent local speakers, Greg and his other middle school colleagues crafted an entire day around civility, right and wrong, relationships, diversity and collaboration.

If we are to re-unite an America that is based on civility, dialogue and respect, courageous and principled teachers are key ingredients. We ought to be encouraging them to teach values --embracing the good that America represents in its grandest ideals -- and to empower our children to spread them before it's too late.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org. To find out more about The Wellington School Civility Day, go to www.Wellington.org