As recent events in our nation’s Capitol begin to settle in, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are witnessing a struggle over the definition of who we are as our nation. What’s more, it is clear that education will surely follow in its wake.
Until recently, the debates around school legislation have been influenced primarily by a sense of affordability. Indeed, legislators were chosen because of their beliefs about how and where the state’s resources should be invested. Today, it is no longer that simple. Ideologies that extend beyond mere fiscal priorities are playing an increasing role in the selection of policy makers and what is expected of them when in office.
While in the past, those of us in education may have felt immune to many of those ideology wars, a look at the current landscape quickly dispels that notion. We are in the middle of a political landscape that is constantly being whipsawed by competing societal forces.
My point is this: As we work with state policymakers, we have to realize that they are impacted by the increasing polarization caused by zero-sum world views. Therefore, the decisions they face have become more complex as they are influenced by more than the availability of money. Accordingly, we have to put more of our hope for the future in our own hands — lest we become just one more faction that acts out of a sense of having been deprived of something owed to us.
This brings me to the realm where I think we can make a difference — our local communities. The world around us seems to have gone mad because people are constantly told what separates them, rather than what they might commonly care about. The fearful and hateful tone of those messages come from feelings of powerlessness where extremism seems to be the only option.
But our communities have choices. They don’t have to act out of a sense of impotence. Regardless of the diverse political views that surely exist in most places, there also resides an opportunity to chip away at this disunity through joint work.
Think about the old fashion barn raising where virtually every person filled a role. The outcome of that effort was a finished structure to be admired. However, the greater result was that everyone felt fulfilled and proud to be a useful and important part of their community. Of course, today we outsource that job to professional builders because it’s more efficient. But, in doing so, we’ve gradually traded away the value of personal contribution for increased productivity. Barn raising may be a thing of the past, but the opportunities for a personal sense of purpose and relevance does not have to be.
Consider the relationship schools have with the people in their communities. Therein, I believe, lies the key to our future. That relationship has to become closer and more genuine — more than a box to check off — and more than something we’ll get to when we find time. It has to come from an ethos that says we are in this thing together as equals. Of course, a strong focus on teaching and learning is still an essential element, but it just isn’t enough anymore.
If our public schools hunker down in their own silos without including the people and other local institutions in any substantive way, public education will find itself marooned on an island regularly battered by the changing winds of political struggles. It will become just another voice lost in those winds.
We cannot declare neutrality in these wars we see around us, but we don’t have to choose sides either. Instead, we can be the adult in the room as we rise above the insanity. But that can happen only with a citizenry that enters the arena and actively works together for the purpose of rearing its children to become happy and productive citizens.
More than anything, people need to feel that they are an important part of something bigger than themselves. They need to feel relevant. We can start providing for that by recognizing how we, in schools, have become isolated from community life and taking a giant step back into it. We have to join the community instead of asking it to join us. Maybe our first task is to understand the difference.
When schools and their communities reunite, not for the purpose of becoming a faction that seeks more power than the others, but into entities that work together for all, then we will become an example of democracy working as it should. We will have done our part to give citizens a purpose and a place.
This is why the grassroots initiative of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network is so important.
Charlie Irish is a member of the statewide leadership team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, an educational partner of the Kettering Foundation and a former 13-year superintendent of the Medina City Schools.