Ed Talk: Education is the Foundation for a Strong Democracy

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

It is increasingly important in today’s world of global interaction and social media that our youth have the tools they need to thoughtfully discern their individual beliefs and political positions.

While Webster’s dictionary simplistically defines “education” as “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools,” this definition from better reflects what we need from our educational institutions today: “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”

To build and maintain a strong democracy, public education in a democratic society should both impart a breadth of knowledge to students and teach them to become independent thinkers. Arlington Public Schools should ensure the “acquiring general knowledge” and “developing the powers of reasoning and judgment” aspects of education by:

  • Building upon existing practices for teaching or incorporating “media intelligence” to help students discern the sources of social media posts and the credibility and biases of information they find online or read in print;
  • Implementing a curriculum that includes general social media use, political use of social media, analysis of political campaign tactics, and international influences;
  • Renewing the emphasis on civics and elevating its importance in the required curriculum;
  • Requiring debate classes and/or the incorporation of more debate-style assignments and activities that require students to understand, explain, and defend opposing positions on a range of topics;
  • Ensuring an atmosphere of inclusion and an environment that does not politicize opinions or surround students with only one set of political positions.

Because parents, teachers, and elected officials are in a position to profoundly influence our youth during their most formative years, as adults, we should be careful not to exclude others with opposing views and not fall prey to habits that contribute to exclusionary thinking such as:

  • Seeking out and promoting discussion forums and news sources that reflect what we want to hear or already believe;
  • Discounting information and opinions that do not support our preferred point of view;
  • Assuming what others think;
  • Failing to make room within our political parties for variation of thought and opinion;
  • Speaking to our children or others with self-righteous, authoritative, or defensive tones instead of listening, asking questions, and seeking to understand the basis of others’ positions.

Our system of government is not intended to reflect one viewpoint; rather to find common ground and represent a plurality of views. Because a healthy democracy depends on well-informed decisions based on credible information and consideration of multiple perspectives, it is more important than ever in the current divisive atmosphere to temper our actions and rhetoric and not politicize every thought and action.

The vernacular is changing rapidly and adults, let alone our youth, do not always understand the nuances of issues. Consider from a child or young teen’s perspective how difficult it can be to understand why a phrase is taken literally or in and of itself, such as ‘all lives matter,’ can be a source of division, or how ‘social justice’ may be used as a term of derision. The most innocuous comment can inadvertently throw someone into a specific political category even when not participating in politics or a political discussion.

So, when a community espouses a homogenous agenda or view, those who see things differently may struggle to find their place and their voices are squelched. More often than not, Arlington School and County Board votes are unanimous. Party primary candidates generally struggle to distinguish themselves from each other. People who offer a counter-opinion on social media are swiftly corrected, criticized, or even mocked. Students whose values lean more conservative can be afraid to speak up in a class discussion about world events or civics. Children developing liberal political sentiments may avoid discussing issues with conservative parents.

Lacking an environment welcoming of different opinions, a sense of isolation can lead people to less credible alternative and potentially dubious sources that will mold their beliefs and shape their politics. Those alternative sources are often easily found on the internet and through online gaming communities. Unfortunately, these sources can be portals for extremists targeting the vulnerable and spreading radical tenets, further isolating these individuals from their peers and immediate “real world” communities. Social distancing during the pandemic has increased feelings of isolation, depression, and online activity in teens – a group already susceptible to being targeted – making it essential for our community and our schools to offer hospitable places for the expression and discussion of multiple viewpoints.*

Bottom line:

In Arlington, we are quick to praise diversity and welcome people of all faiths and backgrounds into our County, perhaps into our neighborhoods and maybe even into our everyday social circles. That approach needs to be applied to our education and politics as well. We need to move beyond point/counterpoint exchanges into honest, non-judgmental discussions exploring the “why” behind people’s views. Our political parties need to allow room for variation in thought. And our schools need to provide an education that equips and encourages students to intelligently and freely develop their personal political positions and affiliations.

A strong democracy is built upon a plurality of views; and strong education is its foundation.

*Many resources are readily available online. Some places to start:

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues. She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and is the former president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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