Teaching the Death of Compromise

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.

7 thoughts on “Teaching the Death of Compromise

  1. Virginia Kennedy

    Hi Grant,

    I want to take just a bit of an exception to the following quote: ” This week, the evolution of our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures. . .” I’m going to argue that our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures long before this week; dissolving the filibuster is just one further step down. I want to apply, for example, your “how could they have let that happen” construction to the rampant consumerism and obsession with economic growth that have led to global climate change, massive biodiversity decline, and the death spiral of our oceans. Our current president signs an executive order a day in the process of removing any semblance of protection for the lands and waters that sustain all human – all biological – life on earth. In the context of this onslaught and its rapidly unfolding consequences, losing the filibuster seems almost quaint.

    I truly don’t mean to belittle your point. You’re absolutely right in the conceptual sense. I just mean to say that losing the filibuster seems to be a symptom of something much larger, and it’s the ‘something much larger’ we need to talk about. If we are going to look at systems and analyze things systemically, then I think we need to honestly assess the system – a globalized capitalism that thrives on resource exploitation at a massive scale – that currently drives most human lives on the planet. The problem is that this system that has facilitated the death of the judicial filibuster has a huge stake in preventing any conversation or analysis about itself. The system and the humans engaged in perpetuating it will necessarily foreclose all avenues that lead to the deep philosophical analysis and debate required for intelligent compromise.

    Take climate change, for example. Climate change is physics, chemistry, and in the realm of its consequences, also biological. It’s science – testable over time, peer reviewed. But, like the Vatican’s stake in keeping Galileo quiet about the earth’s movement around the sun, hugely wealthy and powerful entities have a big stake in muddying the waters about climate change. So, these entities have made an informed and scientific discussion on addressing the realities and challenges of climate change into a political enterprise. To say in my classroom that Trump and the majority of a political party that supports him are provably wrong on this issue of science is ‘take one side’ in an argument that doesn’t have sides – only scientific reality. Everyone will admit to human induced climate change sooner or later, just as, eventually, pretty much everyone understood that the earth goes around the sun – because it is scientific fact. The difference is, of course, we are completely out of time with regard to leaving climate change unaddressed.

    I think what I’m trying to say – and pardon me for rambling my way here – is any conversation that attempts to honestly analyze the current order – and I don’t mean just the order of Trump, for he is a symptom as well – is deemed political and so replete with sides to the argument that it’s best not to engage lest you fire up someone who is on a “different side” than you are. We have to figure out ways to dance around and make everyone feel comfortable that their “side” is not being short changed in the discussion. This insidious method of policing discourse has been incredibly effective in the classroom at all levels. I had an administrator once tell me that I should be so neutral that my students would never know were I stand on “political” issues. I asked him what we would be defining as “political.” He answered, “you know, the hot button issues.” Under this rubric, talking about the filibuster is easy. The Democrats did it first, then the Republicans. It’s everyone’s fault, so I can easily be neutral in talking about it and saying we ‘all’ have to learn to compromise because we are ‘all’ at fault.

    But, shouldn’t the bigger conversation be around what we DON’T compromise? How many of our values did we compromise when we elected a self-described, in fact, self congratulated, sexual predator to the office of the presidency. Am I being “one-sided,” if I stand in front of my class and say, no matter what political party he belongs to, if a man advocates that kind of treatment of women, we should not compromise our values to vote for him? How many of our values do we compromise every time this administration strips a vital protection from the planet or denies the imminent danger of climate change and we DON’T walk into our classrooms and have a discussion about how this administration is literally stealing our students’ future?

    I don’t think I’m advocating political advocacy, although I am completely willing to be wrong, if I am. I think I’m advocating the deeper analysis of what compromise is and should be. What should compromise actually mean in an ethical sense? When is compromise ethically deployed for the best outcomes for a whole community, and when does it just mean a politically contrived and under-analyzed neutrality or an attempt at meeting in the middle of an issue that may not – and shouldn’t – have a middle?

    Wow. What a long reply. That’s what happens on Saturday night dorm duty. I do hope it makes some sort of sense. 🙂

    Virginia

    Reply
    1. Grant Lichtman

      Thanks for the great comments and thinking! I agree with the vast majority of what you have written. I saw the filibuster as one of those tipping point events, like the killing of the Kent State students as a result of all of the other unrest of the time. And my next blog will touch on some of the issues you address from the point of view of how Americans have lost respect for people who are actual experts in various fields, as opposed to anyone with a media following. This could (probably is) one of the existential questions for educators now and over the next few years, and may well differentiate different types of schools: those that address these issues head on and those that try to not make anyone angry. Thanks again!

      Reply
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