Saving E Pluribus Unum in Our Schools and Colleges

Saving E Pluribus Unum in Our Schools and Colleges
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E Pluribus Unum, this thirteen letter phrase, has long been understood as the unofficial motto of these United States. The phrase means Out of Many, One, and its origins date back to Cicero’s paraphrasing of Pythagoras discussing the bonds that are the foundation of societies ‘When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many’. Political scientists translate this concept of ‘love’ into ‘trust’ a core element in the functioning of democratic societies. Large holes in the fabric of American Democracy challenge the trust that is essential for democracy as a way of life in America. In particular, trust among groups of different racial and ethnic identities, essential for people to make democracy work in an increasingly diverse country, is inadequate for us to rise together in addressing the challenges the country faces. We need to rediscover the strength that exists in our diversity. E Pluribus Unum, from many one, has never been more critical.

Our public schools were created to help develop a shared democratic culture, to help children learn to accept and work alongside others from different cultural identities. When Horace Mann launched a campaign for public education, proposing that it would be ‘the social wheel of the social machinery’, he was making a case for their civic purposes in building the necessary trust among all groups so that we could find strength in our diversity. Today, schools must embrace this, their original purpose, with passion, for the sake of repairing the impairments to this essential trust caused by the current presidential campaign. To do this, they must explicitly commit to their democratic civic purposes, teach all students at very high levels so they can develop the competencies to be engaged citizens, and support teachers in developing their competencies to cultivate the democratic sensibilities of their students. We need to teach our students to love others as much as they love themselves, to trust, to see the strength that lies in our diversity. To achieve this, all groups who care about the future of democracy must come together and collaborate. This is no time for petty turf battles, the stakes are too precious and the goal much bigger than any of us can accomplish alone.

The erosion of trust among the many groups that form America has suffered greatly from the narrative used by Donald Trump in his bid for the presidency of the United States. Trump has disparaged minority groups, especially Hispanics and Muslims, and repeatedly resorted to a narrative that brings into question who belongs in America. He has embraced a narrative not of love of the other, not of trust, but of mistrust, perhaps even of hate. He has referred to immigrants from Mexico as criminals and rapists, proposed massive deportations of immigrants, openly harassed Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos, questioned the impartiality of Mexican-American judge Gonzalo Curiel, falsely accused New Jersey resident Muslims of celebrating the terrorist attacks on 9/11, proposed special examinations for Muslim visitors and immigrants, closing mosques as part of his counterterrorism strategy, and ridiculed a Muslim couple of parents of a fallen American soldier.

This bigoted discourse capitalizes on prejudice and reinforces it. It is the antithesis of E Pluribus Unum. Trump’s campaign has legitimized the public expression of racial prejudice and discrimination. This is likely to exacerbate various forms of race-based violence. A 2016 study of violent manifestations of Islamophobia conducted by the BRIDGE Initiative at Georgetown University devotes an entire chapter to ‘Trump inspired violence’ and documents a significant increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes during Trump’s campaign. Some of these have involved students and taken place in schools. A Muslim mother and her nine year old daughter were physically attacked at a restaurant in Indiana by a nine teen year old college students, a group of 12 year olds physically assaulted a sixth grader Muslim student in school in New York, punching her as they called her ‘ISIS’, a seventeen year old ran over a Sikh man in California, and a seventh grader threatened to shoot a Muslim schoolmate in Ohio. In the town where I live a middle school student of Mexican descent has been bullied by classmates who have taunted him indicating that they hope Trump wins so he builds a wall and he has to ‘go back to his country’. Journalist Nick Kristoff has reported similar racial bullying resulting from the campaign throughout the United States.

In response to the increased risk of violence resulting from Mr. Trump’s bigotry, educators have a responsibility to help students and the public reduce the foreseeable damaging consequences. Equally importantly, we have a responsibility to help our students develop the competencies to help our students understand what E Pluribus Unum means and how central it is to the future of this democracy. In effect, we have to urgently undo the damage to the fabric of American democracy that this bigoted campaign has caused. In doing this, in equipping students for respectful and accepting coexistence in a pluralistic society, teachers would be doing the work public schools were created to do, teaching them to live democracy as a way of life, which is after all how democracies succeed or fail.

The bigoted campaign of Mr. Trump preys on ignorance. Polls among GOP voters before his nomination show a significant divide by level of education. Among those without college degrees, Mr. Trump was the favorite of 37% of the voters, compared to 19% for those with college degrees. He was the top choice for those without degrees, but not for the college educated. After his nomination, some of the most educated republican voters remain uninspired by his bigoted campaign. The Harvard Republican Club, a student organization, recently issued a statement indicating that it will not support Donald Trump, and called on GOP leaders to withdraw their support in clear reference to how he has undermined E Pluribus Unum, stating: “His authoritarian tendencies and flirtations with fascism are unparalleled in the history of our democracy…He hopes to divide us by race, by class, and by religion, instilling enough fear and anxiety to propel himself to the White House.”

In polls of electoral preferences, Trump has a clear lead over Clinton among the least educated voters who were educated many years ago. Among voters older than 65 who did not attend college, Trump leads Clinton 49 to 33 percent. In contrast, Clinton leads Trump 51 to 34 percent among those with postgraduate degrees, and 45 to 40 percent among those with college degrees. This lead is much greater for those who have graduated more recently and who are under the age of 34, 54 to 30 percent.

Such disparities in the electoral preferences of voters with different levels of education are likely related to the type of argumentation used by each candidate. In addition to appealing to bigoted and racist prejudices, Donald Trump has consistently depended on a narrative unsupported by facts. That the most educated among Republican voters are unpersuaded by those tactics is indicative that education indeed develops the cognitive skills necessary for people to make the complex decisions involved in selecting someone to represent their interests. At the core, public schools are about equipping people with the necessary skills to participate effectively in a democratic society. Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed this best when he said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”. There are three concrete steps educators can take and five essential conditions to restore E Pluribus Unum in our schools.

  • One of the things educators should do, in earnest, is to make sure all students can read and communicate with understanding, critically, at the levels necessary for participation in a modern democratic society. There is much work to be done in this respect in America. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has designed assessment of student knowledge and skills in various domains, including the capacity to understand written texts with the sophistication necessary to participate in a knowledge based economy and in a democratic society. In those assessments, administered in all OECD countries, the performance of US students is mediocre and there are larger disparities among students than the average for all countries. Educators must work in earnest helping ALL students develop the capacity to read, with understanding, to think critically, to be able to assess the evidence which supports claims, such as those made by people who ask for their vote.
  • Being able to think about the issues that those who hope to represent us must decide upon requires more than literacy skills, it requires knowledge and skills in science, math, history, geography, political science or economics. Only with knowledge and the capacity to think critically can voters hold candidates to account in the claims they make about how they plan to create jobs, close trade deficits, promote national security or reduce crime. Especially important in a democracy is that citizens know the laws and history of the country and its institutions, so they can participate effectively.
  • In addition to such knowledge and skills, democratic participation requires dispositions to work with others in the ways expected in a democratic culture, respect for instance, or acceptance of differences. There are many ways in which such dispositions can be cultivated, all involve well designed curriculum and teachers well prepared to teach it. We the people, for instance, is a program designed and implemented by the Center for Civic Education that engages upper elementary and middle school students in the history and principles of constitutional representative democracy. Facing History and Ourselves, is a curriculum and teacher professional development organization that supports learning experiences in which students analyze historical cases to develop an awareness of the role of individual responsibility in advancing human rights. Schools and districts should assess to what extent there are sufficient opportunities in the curriculum for all students, and not just for those who participate in student government, to learn to think and act as expected in a democratic society.

The following five conditions would enable educators in taking those three steps to restore E Pluribus Unum:

  • Ensuring that the students who are enrolled in schools and colleges are indeed prepared in the ways expected by F.D. Roosevelt requires that education leaders first make explicit their commitment to educating for democratic citizenship. State boards of education should approve and widely disseminate a statement of principles to this end, providing direction, as the Massachusetts Boards of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Higher Education did recently incorporating civic learning and engagement in the definition of college and career readiness. Districts and Schools could do the same. We need to remind ourselves, and all who care about our schools, that schools were invented to make democracy work, to teach us how to make out of many one, E Pluribus Unum.
  • The goal of preparing students for democratic citizenship should find expression in the State Standards, and accountability framework. Effective citizenship requires sophisticated skills, in language and mathematics, for sure, in science and technology, certainly, but also ethical competencies, values and dispositions that allow students to love others as they love themselves, ways of making sense of self in the context of a diverse society, in a way that is not threatened by, or threatens, the sense of self of others with different cultural identities. If this is indeed the most important goal of our schools we should hold them accountable to this. We should care as much about incidents of racial bullying in our schools as we care about students who don’t learn to read.
  • Options for teacher professional development could then be made available to help teachers build their skills and knowledge to provide their students excellent preparation for democratic participation. We should do more than hope that students absorb by osmosis the norms and values of life in a democratic society, for much of the current narrative and actions in fact challenge these basic democratic norms. When a presidential candidate questions the citizenship rights of American born children of immigrants he is challenging the US Constitution. When he suggests that the elections will be rigged, he is challenging the institutions that are at the very core of representative democracy. When he suggests that the President of the United States is complicit in the creation of a terrorist organization like ISIS he is undermining the most basic trust in our elected officials. Teachers need deep knowledge and expertise to help students develop into competent democratic citizens.
  • As important, but undoubtedly more challenging, will be providing similar opportunities to develop democratic sensibilities and competencies to the adults no longer in school, in particular to those with the lower levels of education and to those who were educated a long time ago. Just as they need the opportunities to develop skills for workforce participation in an economy that increasingly demands more skills, they need to develop their capacities for democratic participation, in a democratic process that requires competency. This involves knowledge and skills, as well as dispositions. A citizen who ignores the legal framework of the country, who ignores or disregards the facts or the rights of others, or who believes that they can act on prejudiced hatred is a burden to democratic coexistence. It is in the best interest of American democracy that all be provided opportunities to gain the necessary competencies to participate in a democratic society. This will require serious efforts in adult education, and the creation of an effective infrastructure to effectively reach the least educated adults. Universities and community colleges have here a special responsibility through their extension programs.
  • Achieving these simple but important goals will require collaboration across a range of institutions. Among school and district leaders, leaders of higher education institutions, teacher unions, schools of education, voluntary movements, business, philanthropic organizations. None of them, alone, has the necessary authority or power to produce the depth of commitment and the seriousness of effort that will help us align our schools with the goal of repairing our democracy. This effort will require, most certainly, collaboration across political partialities. This is not a Democratic, Republican or Independent issue. This is not about particular individuals and their followers, it is not a Bush issue, a Rubio issue, a Clinton issue or a Bernie issue. This is about the basic trust and competency that will either make this democratic republic succeed or fail. If our education institutions are to truly teach all students and adults what E Pluribus Unum means, we all have to build bridges across the boundaries of our institutions and demonstrate that we too understand that we can value our diversity and out of many become one and achieve great things.

Educators touch eternity as they help students anticipate and bring about a world that is better than the present. At no time has this been more urgent in this country than at present, when the undemocratic demons of bigotry and racism have been summoned by a reckless candidate. Before those demons cause more violence and suffering, before they blind us all to the essential truth of E Pluribus Unum, teachers should, with renewed urgency, get on with teaching their students what democracy is, and how to perfect it each day with our actions.

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