Scottish independence: 45% / 55%. Brexit: 52% / 48%. US Election: 46% / 54%. These stark results show how divided we are on some of the biggest political issues of today. There is something inherently divisive about having to make such a binary choice; and you could argue not all big decisions split society so cleanly. But nevertheless, the results demonstrate how - on some issues - people disagree profoundly. Much has been written about all of these results and I don’t propose to analyse them further. However I do believe we should reflect more on what it means to disagree.
As well as the results, another characteristic of the recent political upheavals has been the nature of the debate. Politicians, the media and the public have all played their part. MPs that passed a no confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership were vilified by Corbyn supporters on social media. The Daily Mail called High Court judges ‘enemies of the people’ after ruling that the government does not have the right to trigger Article 50 without consulting parliament. And who can forget Hillary Clinton calling half of Trump supporters (that’s around 50 million people by the way) ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic’?
The results indicate wide divisions in opinion: the rhetoric paints a picture of intolerance and stubborn closed-mindedness. Combined, a divided and unmovable society is problematic and will lead to conflict. So what is the answer? Some people would react by campaigning hard for their causes; and if in charge of the National Curriculum, would align it with received opinion and include the pitfalls of political populism, ensuring schools produce citizens who always vote the Right Way. And we’d all get on fine, right? Wrong: whether you are the authority or you are subjected to it, totalitarianism is just as dangerous.
Whether now or in the past, the disillusioned, wronged, frustrated or down-right angry people who wake up in disbelief at 'how it has come to this', will not find hope in political evangelism. Funding vote recounts, challenging the legal bases of decisions, or re-running referenda at the earliest opportunity is not progress and will not free us from disputes. I’m not saying one should give up on one’s beliefs, or that political campaigning should stop following big decisions. I am however proposing we reflect on how we approach contentious differences of opinion.
Learning to empathise
Following a recent mass shooting in the US, I listened to the response of a representative of the National Rifle Association. He argued America would be safer if more people were armed, as they could stop mass shootings before they become mass shootings. He used the term ‘legally disarmed’ for the poor, law-abiding folk left helpless and unable to defend themselves because of the restrictions to bear arms that exist in some states. Slowly, I was able to appreciate his logic, even though it was alien to me and I disagreed. I also began to see how he did not think his logic was strange at all. Indeed he was just as upset at the loss of life as the anti-gun campaigners and had equal trouble engaging with their views. Likewise rather than dismissing huge sections of society from an ivory tower, it isn’t difficult to understand anger and disillusionment in post-industrial regions, even if it is not expressed in a way familiar to you. And if you don't live in North London, people there aren't really so strange (if you give them a chance).
Alternatively, I have come to believe disagreement can be an opportunity for growth. When we truly empathise, we increase our own capacity for compassion. And to comprehend another's logic is to realise the limitations of one’s own. We won’t always end up agreeing; but we can learn graciousness. Moreover by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we are more likely to identity and tackle together the issues at the centre of our disagreements: inequality, disadvantage, desolation - these are shared challenges we can unite in addressing.
As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare children for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. As we live through political uncertainty and continue to feel the effects of the global financial crisis, I believe we should be giving children a capacity for liberation from confliction and disillusionment. The classroom, the playground and the sports field should be theatres for exemplary empathic social interaction. Schools should be havens for building trust and understanding; be that between ethnicities, one’s political opponents, or simply those who are different. Schools aren’t factories of political opinion, but they can be teachers of healthy political debate. And if we prepare young people well, we will see the results in the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions and in the tone of the headlines and hashtags of years to come. An engaged society is a productive one; and an open society is a safer one.
'Love thy neighbour' may sound old-fashioned - but collective worship and SMSC are still around - so far from being cliché, I say learning to love the other is now an educational imperative.
British Council Connecting Classrooms offers free professional learning opportunities across the UK for teachers interested in developing their pupils’ core skills for learning, work and society. Participating teachers can also partner with schools in other countries to learn more about education in other contexts. Grants of £3,000 are available to visit partner schools overseas.
Connecting Classrooms FAQ
What are the core skills and why do we need them?
The core skills encompass a range of competencies that are critical now and in the future. This includes ways of working and thinking, but also tools for working and living as responsible, well rounded global citizens. The core skills are:
• Digital literacy
• Creativity and imagination
• Student leadership
• Collaboration and communication
• Critical thinking and problem solving
Why should teachers get involved?
The new Connecting Classrooms offer focuses on building global awareness and cross-cultural learning. In the last three years alone, the programme has enabled over 28,000 teachers around the world to benefit from professional development training, with over 70% of schools reporting improvements to global citizenship teaching practice.
After the training and an opportunity to meet and share practice with counterparts overseas – all fully funded – many teachers feel that the experience has equipped them with additional skills and expertise that they didn’t have before.
How long do the courses take?
Each package addresses one of the six core skills. They are taught over a 8-12 week period, with a face-to-face session taking place at the beginning and end, as well as webinars and online support throughout. Each course is also available to complete independently online.
Further details about the Connecting Classrooms opportunities available in your local area can be found here; or for more information email email@example.com and follow @Schools_On_Line.