Dear Mr. President,
It’s no coincidence that our schools do double duty as polling places on election days. When the polls opened this morning, the line at Riverview Elementary was already 200 deep and growing, starting at the gym doors, turning the corner, and stretching far down the hall. This was a rare snapshot of my neighborhood, a sleepy still-life. The man behind me said, “I’ve been voting here for years and have never seen a line like this.” Some brought coffee in to-go cups. Some were dressed for work; others sported sweatpants and an air of soak-it-in leisure: call it Electoral Casual. As one woman laughed, “I got nothing else to do today. It’s history in the making.” A woman walked to the end of the line while texting on her phone, never once looking up, a picture of utter concentration. Election greeters with clipboards walked up and down the line verifying voter registrations. Second grade writing projects hung on the walls outside classroom doors, giant orange and yellow construction-paper pencils bearing bold pronouncements: I like to write about cats. I like to write about friends. I like to write about basketball. Look out, world! A new crop of writers and thinkers has arrived. They’re already forming and expressing opinions. Good thing, too. They’ll be voting in 2020.
Today’s election marks the conclusion of the greatest exercise in disjunctive thinking many of us will experience in our lifetime. The two-party electoral system boils everything down to stark either/or dichotomies: Republican or Democrat, you or your opponent, black or white, support or oppose, for us or against us. Disjunctives force our understanding of a complex, nuanced world into a kind of oversimplified, false, comforting clarity. Take a position, goes the refrain. Choose a side. Vote your conscience, your hope, your fear, your pocketbook, your whatever. Where do you stand? Taking a stand, and the giddy sense of hard-edged clarity that accompanies it, too often comes at the expense of genuine understanding. This might be a pragmatic, even necessary, way to run an election, but disjunctive thinking doesn’t serve us nearly so well in other areas of our lives. Seeing the world in black and white doesn’t make for effective public or foreign policy, either.
In education, we often speak of moving our teaching from a “sage on the stage” approach to a “guide on the side” model. We are not the sole givers of knowledge, and students are not empty vessels to be filled. Education is not a factory, and children are not widgets. Rather, there’s art and unpredictability and instinct and intuition in this messy, mysterious process we call learning. There’s beauty and fear, frustration, loss, and wonder. Students are human, and humans are messy. In human learning, we find the familiar black and white, but also quirkier flavors: up and down, strange and charm. We have responsibility to leave no child behind, and an equal responsibility to define “behind” in a way that recognizes and honors each child’s uniqueness. If you’re not with us, you’re. . . behind? We need a more inclusive vision of education.
We’ve had enough didacticism, enough national lecturing, enough sitting-and-getting. We’ve had enough of false disjunctives. Use your office to listen and learn, and construct public and foreign policy based on authentic understanding. Be our national guide on the side, our Learner-in-Chief. Tear down the bully pulpit, and build a classroom in its place. We’re ready to think, learn, contribute, and collaborate.
[Thanks to Scott McLeod for the tag.]