Imagine a world in which the more formal education you have, the more likely you are to view facts about controversial topics through a partisan lens. Take a moment to visualize a country where the lower a person’s education level, the more accurate their perceptions are about the views of other Americans from across the political spectrum. The current political conversation around education is focused on how to produce more college graduates while addressing increasing costs, and yet, many of our politicians have attended the finest schools in our nation and struggle to pursue constructive solutions to our nation’s most pressing concerns. Little surprise that when I recently asked a room full of fifth graders if they had ever solved a problem in school, the only example they had readily available was a word problem in math. In a country where family stability and social cohesion predicts social and economic mobility, where employers are clamoring for employees who can work collaboratively and employ flexible and creative thinking, and whose politics are mired by those who are unable or unwilling to compromise towards the greater good, our education system remains fixated on preparing students for a life of tests instead of the tests of life.
To understand the basis of disparity between what we believe education should accomplish, and these troubling outcomes, we need to examine the idea that reasoning is a purely cognitive endeavor. In fact, learning is a both cognitive and social-emotional process, and if we seek to bridge the divide that threatens our common sense of purpose as Americans, we will have to fundamentally renegotiate the role and function of education vis-a-vis our larger society to recognize this truth.
First we need to recognize that maintaining common purpose in a context of diverse people and perspectives is not a default setting of the human condition — it takes work. Schools need the space to broaden the idea of education beyond the narrow focus that has captured our energies. As the traditional institutions that have concerned themselves with the generation and regeneration of the skills, attitudes, and values that underpin civil society continue their decline, where are our young people learning how to create and maintain community? How are they being taught the skills they need to solve problems that don’t have equal signs attached to them? What competencies will they bring to bear to heal the rifts that threaten our common sense of purpose? These are the answers that our education system will need to take up in 2020 in order for the work of E Pluribus unum to continue into a new decade of American society.
Next, every student in the United States needs to graduate high school with the ability to recognize the impact of their emotions on their reasoning, be able to use perspective taking skills to facilitate problem solving, and make decisions that advance the common good. In short, our future citizens need to be fluent with social-emotional skills. Emotions influence reasoning, and contrary to popular belief, education level magnifies this effect. When young people receive a social-emotional education they are better prepared to differentiate between what they are thinking and how they are feeling and distinguish between positions that appeal to our need to belong to a group and those that are constructive to the whole. This education would help counter the fact that Americans are increasingly segregated by class, race and political party, by developing the perspective taking skills that can help our youth to pursue opinions that differ from their own and equip them to solve problems across differences. Social emotional learning will help prepare our children to solve the types of problems that don’t have discrete solutions attached to them — our continual mission to improve and refine our commitment to each other as Americans.
Finally, we need to recognize that education is not just about what we say, but what we do. The role models we present to our youth are as important as the information we impart to them. Nobody is perfect, but we all have a responsibility to strive to live up to the values we want the next generation to embody.
As we look forward to 2020 and beyond, our future is bright. School systems across the country have embraced social-emotional learning, civics, and a renewed commitment to restoring the social contract between Americans. Those who have committed themselves to this work represent the vanguard who seek a higher purpose of education, one that prepares those who can build physical bridges as well as those who create the desire among our citizens for those bridges to be built.