In a polarized America, what can we do about civil disagreement?

Supporters wave their hands in unison as they gather at a rally for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Anaheim, California, U.S., May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake  - D1AETFXPDRAB

The 2020 presidential election and the partisan divide over the coronavirus crisis have highlighted what we have known for some time: American politics is increasingly polarized, our political communication is nasty and brutish, and thoughtful deliberation and compromise feel increasingly out of reach.

On the positive side, we don’t seem to like this state of affairs. Americans consistently report an aversion to the toxic nature of public discourse, and legislatures across the country are trying to respond by bolstering the required K-12 civics coursework and assessments. There is no shortage of resources to build students’ and adults’ civic capacities, from university centers dedicated to civic engagement, such as the SNF Agora Institute here at Johns Hopkins, to nonprofits that produce high-quality materials on history and government. Changing the trajectory will take time and requires multiple ways of going at this problem.

But a central yet insufficiently appreciated tool is to give young people frequent, sustained practice of meaningful disagreement in the classroom.

Discussing controversial subjects respectfully is a learned skill. It doesn’t come naturally. The Brookings Institution’s William Galston put it this way in his 2018 book, “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy”: “The desire to suppress speech and behavior one finds offensive is instinctive. Restraining oneself from doing so goes against the grain and requires training and indoctrination.”

In a democracy, learning to handle disagreement remains a fundamental responsibility of the nation’s schools. This must be developed not only theoretically and intellectually by understanding the democratic values of tolerance, pluralism, and respect for different views, it must be nurtured practically and routinely. The urgent need for K-12 classrooms to inculcate this habit of civil disagreement is only accelerating, as higher education seems to be retreating from open debates about controversial subjects. Furthermore, there is empirical ground for bolstering this capacity in secondary schools; political scientists such as Notre Dame’s David Campbell find a strong relationship between the “open classroom climate” in schools and long-term civic participation—a finding echoed in international studies. Leaders of liberal democracies therefore have a powerful interest, even obligation, to ascertain whether, and to what extent, schools under their aegis are cultivating the habit of reasoned deliberation.

For this reason, many democracies participate in the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), most recently released in 2018. The ICCS probes not only individual students’ civic skills and knowledge (akin to our National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] civics test), but also whether their teachers and classrooms routinely solicit multiple perspectives and support sustained deliberation on important subjects. According to the ICCS, the positive association between such classrooms and desirable civic outcomes has remained robust for more than 40 years–bolstering Campbell’s point from an international perspective. Deliberative classrooms matter.

Despite this, the United States has not participated in an international civics assessment since 1999. While NAEP (known as “the nation’s report card”) charts the civic knowledge and skills of eighth-graders every four years, it does not investigate classroom- or school-level contexts. As a result, our policymakers have had no clear indication of whether classrooms are effectively cultivating democratic citizenship.

To fill this critical gap, our research team at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy designed School Culture 360, a deep dive into the experiences that administrators, teachers, parents, and secondary students have within the school community. In doing so, we embedded questions from the ICCS and field-tested additional, often open-ended questions as well. We ask students whether their teachers introduce multiple perspectives on a given subject. We ask teachers whether students feel comfortable discussing current political controversies. We ask parents how important it is to them (on a Likert scale) that their children receive instruction in civics and citizenship. We even ask students what they can’t talk about at school, which is just as illuminating as what they can.

In our pilot cohort of 26,000 participants, we found lots of variation on such measures, even between schools of similar size serving similar students. The percentage of secondary students who “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that their teachers encouraged discussions on important topics, for instance, was quite low in some schools, and quite high in others. Or, in some cases, parents and administrators in the same school community disagreed about the relative importance of “citizenship – or understanding institutions and public values.” One point of convergence, however, was the taboo subject that students across our pilot cohort listed most frequently: “Politics.” These young people, in other words, do not seem to be engaging with substantive economic and diplomatic issues or comparing the very policies that will affect students’ lives well into the future—much less learning to disagree, even strongly, and with civility.

Such early findings are not yet nationally representative. They do, however, offer data that leaders can leverage across the school communities we surveyed to build comfort—and, one hopes, even respect and excitement—in a very routine, healthy encounter with the variety of human beliefs and commitments inevitably present in a pluralistic democratic society.

Recognizing the nature of the problem is only the first step, of course. Teachers need to be supported as they engage with the risks of enabling less anodyne classroom conversations. Parents need reassurance that exposure to diverse viewpoints does not constitute sanctioning them. And students can, with time, discern the difference between slogan-slinging and serious, well-informed, respectful argument. Even though schools are operating off-site during the COVID-19 crisis, we should be planning for the day when students return to classrooms.

A sharp and concrete focus on preparing the next generation of citizens for civil disagreement certainly will not rescue political discourse in the 2020 election cycle, but it could contribute to making 2028 a whole lot saner.