On Point in Education: Public education must bolster citizenship

With the vitriol that has become a constant for us in the media climate of 2017, schools have a progressively critical role in helping our students make sense of the world they live in. In our interconnected digital world, our students are bombarded by constant acrimony and intolerance through social media and news outlets. In the midst of this intolerance, schools must reaffirm our commitments to support our students in building the capacity to understand and providing them with the skills and confidence to be active leaders in our local and global communities.
There is work under way throughout the country to refocus the mission of public education, to lead students in understanding how democracy works and how to be an active member of an increasingly global community that is becoming more inflexible and less inclusive. There is a need to reaffirm the mission of public education to uphold the ideals of strong citizenry, and to investigate how we can help students develop the critical skills necessary to engage in a world that is fractured by distrust.
Education must go beyond reductionist approaches. We must challenge students to think critically, to question and analyze, and to continually seek understanding in a world tilted towards increasing polarity. Returning to our mission of preparing students to be active citizens in our global community means providing them with the tools they’ll need to understand the complexities of worldview and how others see and experience the world. And to do this, empathy is a critical skill.
In a 2010 study of nearly 14,000 college students in the United States, researchers found that “empathic concern” had declined by 48 percent and “perspective taking” had fallen by 34 percent from 1979 to 2009. This is significant, and points to a number of possible factors that have shifted how our culture views empathy and its place in our relationships.
In developing empathy, schools can help by being sure that students have the opportunity to develop an understanding of themselves and how their worldviews have been shaped through experience, culture, and language. This is not simply transferal of content from a textbook. It takes real structured inquiry and analysis into both established bodies of knowledge and complex problems to develop this understanding. It’s this inquiry that leads to a clearer understanding and acceptance of worldviews different than one’s own, as well as the ability to engage other perspectives that are not inclusive of others.
Public schools should be leading the development of empathy, inquiry, and understanding for our students. As we pivot off of a modern-day reality that has students wondering where civil discourse resides, the importance of helping them develop empathy and an understanding of difference is critical and central. It has to be a central skill that students leave our schools with to improve their own lives and those of others when they take up the mantle of leadership in the next generation.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central School District and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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