The tempest that is Washington D.C. these days provides a puzzle for educators: is it an opportunity for learning, or just too fractious to even touch? What is our role in helping our students to make sense of something, when much of it does not make sense from many traditional perspectives? Are we, as educators and adults equipped to help our students understand and benefit from critical lessons that don’t fit standard templates?
The vote today to change the rules of the U.S. Senate requires teachers and parents to think about our roles as educators of the next generation, and it is not a question of party or political viewpoint. We witnessed what is likely a significant tipping point in the history of our country, one we will look back on decades from now, not unlike the run-up to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the beating of peaceful protestors on a bridge in Selma, the dramatic erosion of the American middle class, or the shooting of students at Kent State and ask “how could they have let that happen?”
This week the Senate invoked the so-called nuclear option; the majority voted to change their own rules in order to win one vote. The rules they changed have kept the Senate a place of relative civility for more than two centuries, because, in the words of several senators who voted for the change against their own principals, “we have had to reach out and work with those with whom we don’t always agree”. The rules have forced at least some degree of compromise, a word that, perhaps more than any other describes the great strength of the American Experiment. It is compromise, codified in our principles as far back as Magna Carta, that often separates democracy from dictators.
Who unilaterally changes the rules of the game when they don’t win? Most frequently it is bullies, spoiled children, autocrats, oligarchs, and dictators. In school or at home we would never countenance such a solution amongst our children. The idea that changing the rules to win because, at this moment, I can, and that somehow that is the right thing to do, runs contrary to everything mature adults know about how human social groups work best.
This is not a partisan issue. The Republicans decry the moment when the Democrats changed the rules on lower court judicial nominations, pointing to it as precedent for invoking the nuclear option on Supreme Court nominees. Both of these decisions are wrong for the same reason. There are no innocents who have not been part of this slippery slope at the bottom of which we have now arrived. Earlier this week, as Democrats, who were on the current losing end rightly railed against the rules change, a few of the more grown up Republicans said that this was a “dark day” in the senate, that every future member would come to regret this decision, that it was the wrong thing to do. And then they voted with the partisan majority to do something that they knew to be wrong. Democrats did the same thing a few years ago.
This vote, like others of truly historic moment, did not come about just this week. It is the result of more than two decades of increasingly partisan divides in our state and national governing bodies, where compromise has become first rare and then nearly extinct. It will leave a bitter legacy, where accusations and feuds override discourse and reason. It represents the triumph of the ends over the means in one of the great social systems to have evolved out of centuries of human enlightenment.
I have written and spoken extensively about how systems evolve, and about how the system of education is acting much more like a natural ecosystem than a system engineered for a specific, predictable purpose. Natural ecosystems are subject to natural selection, a process which creates winners and losers. Some individuals and species are better adapted for the prevailing conditions and live; others are less so and they die. We tend to place a positive value on this process; we tend to see evolution as “good”; that the “better” succeed. This kind of value judgement is ridiculous; nature has no such system of values. This week, the evolution of our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures, and killed part of the system that has thrived in the past: compromise, collaboration, maturity, and respect for the long-term future.
How can we as educators—parents, teachers, coaches, mentors—make sense of this for our children? What precedent do we have? Do we ignore it as inappropriate discussion for the classroom or the dinner table? Can we have discussions about it as an opportunity for learning, or has the partisanship in our system grown so cancerous that it has fatally infected our learning systems as well?
I have been thinking and researching a great deal about what educators, parents, students and community stakeholders can do to transform education in spite of, not with permission from, contrary forces of adult self-interest; it is the central theme of my new book, Moving the Rock. This unfortunate turn of American history gives us a chance to practice empowerment. We can either use this opportunity to teach our students how to make better decisions than the senate made this week, or we must own a piece of similar mistakes that those students might make in the future.
I know what I would do if I were a teacher, but I am not sure if that is what is right for others. Each must decide.