I am beginning to fear for the future of our nation. While we have yet to cross the Rubicon, its banks are now within sight. Citizens on either side of the political spectrum are, increasingly, losing faith in our primary institutions of government. Social media platforms have, at once, monetized and exploited uncivil discourse, putting a digital bellows to a smoldering discontent that is both self-absorbing and self-consuming.
Far too many Americans have been left behind. Unprepared to compete in the new global economy, they struggle with their loss of status, many falling prey to opiates of one sort or another. Our adolescents are facing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportion, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating rates of suicide, self-harm, anxiety and depression. The rate of homicide-by-firearms recently reached a 25-year high. Mass shootings are becoming ever more commonplace.
A society that was once characterized as a “melting pot” – a term whose very utterance now constitutes a “micro-agression” – has morphed into a collection of competing aggrieved groups. People appear to be more ashamed of our nation’s flaws than proud of its accomplishments. Our body politic is seized with a form of vertigo in which an irresistible centrifugal force spins those seeking common cause away from the middle and toward the extremes. Increasing numbers on both the right and the left believe they have been abandoned by their respective political parties.
Nowadays, it is insufficient to agree to disagree about an expanding list of political topics. Those embracing opposing views are reviled and “othered.” They are no longer simply ‘wrong’, but evil. Family members have been dis-invited from Thanksgiving dinners over their party affiliations, choice of candidates, and even the cable tv channels they watch.
Private schools are not immune to these disintegrative forces. Association executives are reporting increasing manifestations of conflict and an accompanying decline in civility among both children and adults. Nerves are frayed, tempers are short, and cooler heads don’t always prevail. Pandemic exhaustion has taken its toll, to be sure, but contagion from a coarser political culture cannot be ignored.
I have often suggested that private schools’ two most essential characteristics are voluntarism and community. Neither should be taken for granted, and both are currently under duress. But herein lies opportunity. We are, I think, presented with a teachable moment writ large…an opportunity to re-embrace first principles and direct attention, anew, to one of the great, differentiating advantages of our enterprise: private schools are at liberty to cultivate a moral point of view.
In the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, Cain presents a question that should be embedded in the curriculum of every private school, whether religiously oriented, or otherwise: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Within its biblical context, the question, uttered by a perpetrator of fratricide, is rhetorical and dismissive. Its bleak, default view of human nature serves as a reminder of what social relations in a world devoid of morality, law, and personal responsibility would look like.
Am I my brother’s keeper? The question has never been more important, and our schools must provide a response in both word and deed. The good news is, they can, and they do! For our schools are, themselves, communities – mini-societies in which children become acculturated through complementary appeals to the intellect and exposure to norms of behavior and modeling. If the critical socialization role performed by our schools has been interrupted by the exigencies of the pandemic and is threatened by the social pathologies of the day, a new intentionality is required, one that restores emphasis to the importance of living in community.
No individual has the capacity to heal our nation, but every member of a school community can contribute to the creation of a healthy micro-society, one that models what it means to be responsible for one another. And who knows? If we can cultivate and practice civility, tolerance, generosity, kindness, and gratitude in our private schools, it might just spread.
Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.