The days leading up to the recent Congressional vote on the health care reform bill were emotionally charged. Advocates and opponents made last ditch efforts to state their views and sway opinions. There were some ugly and uncivil moments along the way: shocking protest posters, racial and homophobic slurs directed at members of Congress, spitting, an outburst during Congressional debate.
At issue, of course, is not the fact that people disagreed strongly about the content of the legislation, that protests were held, or that deeply held convictions were expressed. At issue are the quality and character of the public discourse.
In schools we spend a great deal of time discussing the behavior of students, and rightly so. But we tend not to spend enough time, I think, talking about the grown-ups. In his discussions of parent-school relations, the writer and educator Rob Evans speaks to the importance of defining “requirements for membership” in the school community. These requirements focus on the adults, not the children, and have to do with the quality of relationships: how we speak with one another, how we resolve disputes, how we voice our needs and opinions. Such “requirements for membership” might be expressed in a set of clearly articulated core values, in phrases such as “here at St. Swithin’s, we do/do not…,” in the language of enrollment or employment contracts, and in the parent or faculty handbooks. These “requirements for membership” communicate “this is how we do business ” and “this is what we expect.”
Of course, such words cannot be empty platitudes. They need to be lived and modeled in the day-to-day interactions of school life. If we want young people to handle disagreements gracefully and respectfully, surely all of the adults must show the way. If we want students to extend compassion and mercy, surely they must be the recipients of such mercy. If we want students to stand up for what is good and true and right, surely they must watch us do the same.
Children learn what is acceptable and what is not through lived experience—how they and those around them are treated, how adults resolve disagreements and communicate strongly held views, and how breaches in the social contract are handled. This may be among the most important “curriculum” we offer.