Whitney Houston was right when she sang, “I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
At a time when political polarization continues to fracture families and communities, we hear voices of reason among our youth. An opinion piece in The Washington Post this week proves that once again.
Eli Tillemann, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described a divisive issue in his school that led to further polarization among adults (washingtonpost.com). This top-rated magnet school saw its selective admissions process overhauled by the Fairfax County School Board in an effort to improve diversity. No longer would applicants have to pay a $100 application fee or undergo standardized testing. Sadly, the infighting that followed nearly ended the Parent Teacher Association and a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court.
Tillemann shows more maturity than most of us when he writes, “Over the past two years, many of my classmates and I have learned a valuable lesson from this factional squabbling: It doesn’t work. When a society separates into warring camps, no one is left to have a meaningful conversation about fixing the underlying issues.” Instead of taking sides, he and many classmates decided to write their own curriculum, to learn to debate constructively and “to build a program that prepares students to navigate our increasingly tribal cognitive ecosystem.” With help from Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist and an interdisciplinary researcher at Harvard Medical School, and digital media executive Stuart Schulzke, they created “Dialectic,” a program now being looked at in states like California, Utah, and Massachusetts.
As president of both the Democrats and Republicans at his school, Tillemann has brought them together to host lectures on “the science around communication in the digital age, the neurobiology of tribalism and, perhaps most important, how to disagree.” He writes that more than 70 students attended the kickoff lecture, and that he and his classmates really want to learn how to disagree better, how to avoid the tribalism so apparent in the adults around them.
These students seek to tackle controversial problems, working together to generate better solutions. He writes, “This is not just civility for civility’s sake. The best outcomes in policy, business and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”
These young people recognize that their solutions may not be adopted, but they hope to change the acrid environment surrounding the debate about the issue. They recognize that the well-intended changes to the admissions process are still flawed, and they are suggesting options to avoid some of the problems. I am impressed!
But Tillemann is right that we need more work like this around the nation. He says it far more effectively than I could: “Americans must level up the caliber of our discourse by relearning the benefits of practical debate. Constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time for both sides to embrace a new strategy for resolving our differences.”
Out of the mouths of babes…