This week, we saw the best and worst of America. In these moments, we see implications for public education. The best America was on display in Georgia, where record turnout—inspired by years of community engagement and voter registration that brought hundreds of thousands of new voters into the democratic process—elected the first Black man and first Jewish man to represent Georgia in the United States Senate. That a Republican Secretary of State supervised this historic election, while rebutting baseless claims of fraud, serves to underscore Americans’ dedication to the rule of law, and the power of the people.
Americans also saw the worst: horrific scenes of our own Capitol, a beacon of democracy, invaded and trashed by a mob of domestic terrorists who were recruited and incited by elected political leaders. The avowedly insurrectionist, almost all-White rioters were treated with undeserved deference. The contrast with the militarized, disdainful treatment of overwhelmingly non-violent Black Lives Matter protesters in summer 2020 plainly illustrates the operation of white privilege in America. Such scenes cause confusion and dissonance in young people who are trying to understand America and their place in it.
Last summer, in June 2020, we said that “Covid-19 and protests against police brutality are the most important teachable moments of a generation. Students will feel the hypocrisy viscerally if education ignores these issues, and we will miss an opportunity to lay the foundation for truth and reconciliation.” This week is a teachable moment for every adult with responsibility for public education. On the how, we need to redouble efforts to develop healthy social-emotional skills in students: how to self-regulate, have civil disagreements, and accept democratic decisions even when they don’t go our way. As for the what, we need a new commitment to teaching civics and history more deeply, so that young Americans are equipped to critically examine the arguments of others and exercise their rights responsibly. Teaching such critical knowledge and skills goes hand in hand: you learn social-emotional skills by learning about, discussing, and debating important issues that matter to you and your community.
This week underscores once again that protecting and perfecting democracy is the work of every generation. Public education is the most profound investment in our shared identity as Americans. We have work to do in our schools to prepare young people to take their place as leaders. History is happening, and young people will learn more from what we do in response than what we say. The Aspen Institute Education & Society Program will work with leaders across lines of race, political party, and every other divide we must reconcile to position public education as a bulwark of democracy and an engine of equity.
The Aspen Education & Society Team