Administrators and teachers at schools across the country have started this year a bit more anxious than usual. Why? In addition to the usual, often mundane details that crowd a starting agenda, leaders are mulling how to help members of their school communities process two crucial and volatile topics: the tumultuous world and national events of the past summer, and the impending Presidential election. These are not easy discussions to have. Laden with emotions and identities, strongly held beliefs and historical baggage, these topics can strain friendships and families, let alone school communities. For many, the answer will likely be to avoid them, to privilege the veneer of harmony over the risk of conflict.
I suggest that we at North Shore can do better.
Because North Shore is a small, close-knit community, we have the opportunity to model what we would hope for when engaging in difficult conversations. To the extent the mainstream culture has seemed to coarsen in terms of civil discourse and respectful disagreement, we can and should be counter-cultural. In his book, In Defense of Civility, James Davis pines for public and private exchange characterized by “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.” That might be a high bar to reach, but we should not shy away from lofty goals.
In our opening meetings, I asked our faculty and staff to dive into this issue. We all recognized our returning students would surely have a range of responses to the events of this tumultuous summer and we would need to support them in processing those events. We also recognized, and have since seen, that this election season is testing the boundaries of civil discourse and eliciting strong opinions and reactions.
Together we drafted some guiding principles for debate at North Shore:
- Disagreement is central to the learning process.
- Conversation, including disagreement, should be respectful and open.
- Participants should seek to understand, not just speak; listen, not just hear.
- Advocacy is natural, but should foster the exchange of ideas, not stifle it.
- Passion in the service of advocacy or belief is powerful and often appropriate, but should employ facts/data and avoid inflammatory rhetoric.
- Generative exchange avoids gross generalizations about groups of people, doesn’t belittle individuals or their beliefs, and recognizes some groups and individuals may feel particularly sensitive about certain topics.
This approach is not just aspirational—it is based on our mission and some of the values that guide us: integrity, kindness, respect, compassion and inclusion. In the Lower School, for instance, some early discussions simply asked students to define these words themselves and consider why they are important. This week, our younger students will be asked to identify a person they know who exemplifies one of these words and create a pictorial representation of them.
The Middle Schoolers, led by their student representatives, created a set of “Community Norms” to emphasize how they should interact with each other. These are being made into posters for display through the building. The headlines include such things as “Respect People, Ideas and Things” and “Listen More than You Speak” and “Act with Kindness. Speak with Kindness.”
Upper School conversations can be more complex and, consequently, more loaded. The same approach still applies, though. We can learn how to engage in difficult conversation; we can practice it and begin to normalize vocabulary and lessen discomfort. In preparation for the 9th grade English reading of A Lesson Before Dying, two teachers led a class-wide conversation called “How to Talk About What We Don’t Know How to Talk About.” The goal was to practice creating an environment where talking about race and religion—central themes of the book—was less charged and more generative.
That doesn’t mean that we strip out all controversy or sand off all the rough edges of life. A certain level of discomfort is important in academic exchange. It’s a balance. I have no interest in kicking the hornet’s nest just to prove some romantic point about the beauty of educational discourse and intellectual exchange. Neither do I have an interest, though, in shielding our students from the crucial issues of our day and their future. Important growth and learning can take place when we wade into the unknown or uncomfortable, and engage what we find there. I would like to see North Shore be a place where we can have tough discussions—about any topic—with openness and respect; a place where we hope and work for collaboration and harmony in our School, nation and world, but are prepared to examine and unpack the inevitable conflict and discord we will face.
In short, I want members of our community to define and practice the skills of civil discourse so they become a regular part of the culture and practice at North Shore. If we can collectively define our terms of engagement so disagreement isn’t ugly or scary but is one of many modes of intellectual and personal exchange, our School community will benefit and our students will help make our larger community a better place.
Will it be easy? Of course not. Will there be misspoken words and hurt feelings? Absolutely–but we can handle it. The intimacy of the North Shore learning experience is designed for this purpose—for learning together, struggling together and taking appropriate risks along the way. With patience and practice and adult guidance, our students will develop habits of heart and habits of mind that will serve them well as they leave the relative safety of North Shore and venture into the wider world even better prepared to become “self-confident, ethical citizens of the world who embody our motto, “Live and Serve.”
North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.