My three children have received quite the education over the past year—and I don’t just mean school.
Like children across the world in the COVID19 era, they have received a practical education in adaptability, resilience, disaster management, self-directed play and learning, and managing their own emotions. During lockdown my ten year-old daughter wrote a poem and story that showed an astonishing depth of insight into the emotional roller coaster she was riding. Cloaked as it was in fiction, she herself did not fully recognize the powerful cry of her unconscious.
Some of their greatest learning, however, has been about political polarization. They spent the past six years in a public school in Silicon Valley, which is about as politically liberal as America gets. Their friends came from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, spoke numerous languages, and held passionate and deeply personal views about immigration. My children studied global warming in school and performed school plays about environmental stewardship. Instead of Columbus Day, they celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day. If anyone in their school or neighborhood voted for Donald Trump, it was a closely-guarded secret. Their school valued creativity, experiential learning, and the individual expression of each child.
In July we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, which is as politically conservative as Silicon Valley is liberal. Our children resumed their education in a small private, Christian school, which values classical education, tight haircuts, and grammar drills. Now it is the Biden supporters who are in the closet, while Trump-Pence signs adorn many lawns—usually alongside JESUS 2020 signs. On Columbus Day, my children brought home a book hailing Christopher Columbus as a hero. Their school celebrates patriotism, pledges allegiance to the flag, and advocates for individual responsibility and strong families.
Before our move, my wife and I wondered how such an abrupt transition would go, particularly during this time of toxic political polarization. We endlessly discussed how to educate our children, in what kind of school.
A few months into this new adventure, however, I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that my children are growing up with firsthand experience in both halves of the United States. At a time when our country has so thoroughly sorted itself into opposing camps, this is a rare and valuable opportunity that many Americans will never know. Our “foreign immersion” in different parts of our own country has been every bit as exotic as the two years we spent living in the Middle East.
The first and most striking reality my children encountered is that kind, loving, generous, and good people can be found anywhere, even when they hold radically different political perspectives from each other. After six years in Silicon Valley, my children had internalized a thoroughly dehumanized stereotype of “the other”; they only set foot in their new school with trepidation. They were delighted to discover a cadre of teachers who—just like their teachers in Silicon Valley—were warm, generous people who loved them, cared about their academic success, and more importantly wanted them to grow up to be thoughtful, compassionate people and good citizens. Now the “othering” process is playing out in reverse; my children frequently return home shocked at the latest dehumanizing stereotypes they hear about liberals and Democrats.
My delight in having a foot in two worlds does not mean that I draw moral equivalencies. My wife and I still have strong views on many issues, and we are utterly baffled and saddened by some viewpoints we encounter. Like most Americans, we are exhausted and demoralized by the erosion of our democracy, gridlocked political institutions, political toxicity, the collapse of civil discourse, and the celebration of corrosive extremism. We believe that democracy demands not the papering over of differences, but vigorous engagement with them. We believe that some political viewpoints are worth tirelessly fighting for, and others are worth tirelessly fighting against.
Yet we also believe that the messy, hard, contentious work of democracy must play out with civility and with a basic respect for individual human beings. Hard though it might be, we have to keep our common humanity in sight. Much of the outrage on both sides springs from a deep sense of fear and woundedness, as we all feel that the “other” is on a ruthless crusade to deny our basic humanity.
My children are carrying a lot right now. They feel personally invested in many political issues. My twelve year-old son, a passionate environmentalist, is baffled and almost hurt by the widespread skepticism of global warming here. My daughter comes home several days a week, processing her teacher’s prayers for political outcomes that would mortify her teachers at her previous school. I worry, sometimes, that they are carrying too much. So much easier, I think, if they lived ensconced in a single community of like-minded family, friends, and neighbors who affirmed each other’s beliefs in every conversation.
Easier, undoubtedly. But our family has never chosen to live easy.
My children are learning how to be citizens, with all the uncomfortable complexity that demands. They are learning about the great debates of our time, but they are learning about these debates from within communities of real, living, breathing people. Unlike the raucous invective that passes for discourse on social media, they are participating in human discussions. They can never take the easy way out–despising the other–because the other is a friend, teacher, or relative, in one world or the other.
Our dinner table has become a place of rich conversation. This week we have had sophisticated conversations about Amy Coney Barrett, about the fierce battles for the Supreme Court, about Republican and Democratic perspectives and tactics, about election year nomination blocking and court stacking. We have talked about abortion, about the meanings of “pro-life” to different political and religious communities, about the relative prioritization of issues, about single-issue voting and more comprehensive platforms. In the weeks before that our children watched Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, and in the days that followed we talked about different narratives they heard assessing the performance of each candidate. Racial equity issues are front and center here, and we discuss them almost every day.
I have no idea if we are doing it right. Perhaps our children, under the cognitive and emotional strain of so much dissonance, will later be easy prey for fundamentalists or ideologues, who promise easy answers. Maybe, exhausted, they will simply turn a blind eye to contentious political issues and withdraw into private, safe worlds.
Then again, maybe, just maybe, our children will learn to be American citizens.
Maybe they will grow up comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. Maybe they will learn to embrace the creative tension of holding another person’s humanity, and hearing others out without feeling personally threatened. Maybe they will learn to listen to the best possible arguments on an issue from multiple perspectives, then still have the courage and strength to stand by what they believe to be right. Maybe they can learn to do so with civility and respect. Maybe they can still be good friends and neighbors, even amidst profound disagreements about consequential, high-stakes issues.
I have to believe that about my children, because I have to believe it about the rest of us. Each day, as I navigate these thorny questions about how to educate my children, I am forced to look in a mirror. I must be alert to hypocrisy, ensure I am living out what I hope for my children. Striving to be a better parent is, I hope, making me a better citizen.
All of us in the United States are under tremendous strain. So many of us feel powerless, in the face of structural forces that seem to be tearing our country apart. But a democracy ultimately depends on its citizens, and the responsibility to be good citizens starts within each one of us.
As I am learning from my children, becoming a good citizen is an ongoing process that we can and must live out each day.
P.S. For my wife Wendy Luce Jacobsen’s rich perspective on finding hope in these times, you can read her writing at Healing Division.