Controversy with Civility

Take a moment and consider your political leanings that inform how you believe the world could be a better place. Do you have them fully-pictured in your head? Perfect. Now, think about people who disagree with your notions. Perhaps they espouse a different party’s views, or oppose one of your staunchly held positions. You’re probably feeling annoyed even at the mere thought of their ideas. But, take another moment and consider this: do you believe that they are out to ruin the world? That making the world worse is their inherent goal?

When I do this exercise with college students, to teach about the meaning of “controversy with civility”, nearly all of them take pause at the final questions. They chuckle, shake their heads, and murmur, “no, probably not.” We then discuss how remembering that most of society is working to better the world, just with different approaches, can help us tolerate and work with those we disagree with.

I was reminded of this exercise when I read this article from The Atlantic positing that we are not far from the ideal world that conservatives envision, and that rather than the distaste for social welfare that oft defines the party, the real aversion is for the idea of “utopia” that liberals are striving for. As a liberal, I argue that this incorrectly characterizes us, as I believe we stand more for equality of opportunity than the utopia itself, but I can see how that finer point is missed in the mainstream rhetoric. I found this piece interesting, frustrating, and above-all informative to my understanding of a position I typically disagree with.

This article stayed with me as I read about the turmoil at Yale. To summarize the events: administrators sent a campus-wide email asking that students be considerate of other cultures when choosing costumes; a faculty member countered with the opinion that perhaps the administration should expect more of Yale students, even if that meant a few costumes offending others; students protested, citing that questioning the original email made them feel unsafe in their Yale home. The article is well-written, reasoned, and provides a perspective that, as someone who usually defaults to supporting students, I was surprised to agree with.

The first article I offer as an example of seeking to understand differing views; the second as an example of what happens when we don’t have the skills to do so. What’s most fascinating to me is how relevant these skills are in my third grade classroom.

My students disagree with each other daily, usually because of a playground incident, or because someone hurt their feelings. As teachers, we initially encourage them to work it out on their own, whether they “agree to disagree” or find common ground. When an argument escalates to a level that needs our intervention, we encourage each student to share their perspective and then we facilitate a resolution, which sometimes equates to simply avoiding each other for the rest of recess. We teach students to apologize when necessary, but also push back against students who demand apologies for their own bad luck or unhappiness.

Sometimes we put students in a bubble. As adults concerned for children’s “safety”, we implement new rules in their lives all the time. As of this week, our students are only allowed to play one specific type of tag under a certain teacher’s supervision and facilitation. We constantly regulate what they can and cannot do on the playground (and everywhere, really), primarily to avoid situations that lead to disagreements.

Overall, I think we are doing well at teaching our students to interact with each other and work out (or accept) their differences. Many college students and adults could learn a thing or two from the nine-year-olds who recognize that playing together is far more important than whatever disagreement they have. But teaching empathy and fostering a zest for challenges is hard work, in and out of the classroom. Though it’s developmentally appropriate for our students to focus on themselves without recognizing the feelings of others, they are on the tail end of that stage.

Nevertheless, adults and students still struggle to have their views challenged, especially the kids in my class. And this makes me concerned that we will continue to see students who, despite their extensive social practice, can’t bear a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with them. Daily, I work with students who respond to an academic challenge with, “this makes no sense” or devolve into tears because they don’t immediately understand a new concept. Teaching them the all-important grit, resilience, and self-confidence in the face of challenge is the most difficult thing I do everyday. But I fear that our students come to us with these struggles because they lack the same lessons in other areas of their lives, and the effects of that will last longer than my insistence that working hard for understanding is a good thing.

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