Schools are becoming an epicenter of culture wars, but there is a solution to the conflicts

School board members are receiving death threats. School board meetings have become shouting matches. The national news is regularly reporting about the most local of politics—school board elections in tiny districts.

The two primary topics causing all this conflict are COVID-based mandates for masking and/or vaccination and teaching about racism in social studies classes. This post is about the latter.

My neighbors in my rural community, whom I ran into recently, offered me an unsolicited earful about what’s happening in schools. Since we were simply catching up about our respective adult children and the challenging times we’re living in, I didn’t see it coming. But then, with passion and anger, they were suddenly talking about the end of free speech at school board meetings, how teachers are telling children that white people are bad, and how we shouldn’t teach values in school.

There was barely any space to interject that it just wasn’t true that teachers were telling children that white people are bad. And I didn’t get to say that I thought that free speech was certainly alive (though not well) at school board meetings, nor that we’ve been teaching values in schools ever since the first school opened. I used the few moments I could get a word in to say that as someone working in the field of education, I felt that the media was sharing extremes that don’t represent reality. I also said that it’s important that kids learn about the history of slavery and Jim Crow. These comments seemed to me to be exceedingly mild and uncontroversial, but even they were too much for my neighbors. They told me they were quite knowledgeable about history, and that Black people in America owned slaves, too.

I walked away stunned, nauseated, and ever more committed to bringing a Solutionary Framework to schools.

The Solutionary Framework

A solutionary approach to addressing social justice issues has the capacity to stop the arguing, hyperbolic language, and attempted brainwashing from polarized factions of society—all of which are tearing apart communities and inhibiting solutions to problems from being discussed and implemented.

How does the Solutionary Framework achieve these goals, and why should schools embrace it? The following offers an example based on the issue of racism that could transform the fighting into cooperative problem-solving.

Rather than debating indisputable claims about the existence of structural racism or statements like “Teachers are telling children white people are bad,” the solutionary process begins with identifying an actual problem based on settled empirical evidence. Since there is a consensus among the majority of social scientists who are experts in the field that structural racism in the U.S. exists, and that institutional practices and laws perpetuate racial inequalities, the solutionary process invites students (middle and high school students in this case) to do the following:

  1. Identify a real-life manifestation of the problem, whether in their own school (perhaps a disciplinary policy that unfairly targets Black students), their community (perhaps zoning laws that have created segregated schools), their state (maybe voting laws or gerrymandering has disenfranchised Black voters), or their nation (maybe constitutional protections are not being adequately upheld).
  2. Conduct careful research to understand the historical and current contributors to the problem.
  3. Speak to stakeholders and experts who are working to solve the problem and whose views represent differing perspectives on how to do so.
  4. Determine leverage points for change.
  5. Collaboratively devise solutions that address the causes of the problem and do the most good and least harm for everyone, while focusing on the most impacted and disadvantaged.
  6. Implement solutions, assess them, and improve upon them.
  7. Share successes to spread positive change.

The solutionary process demands careful investigation, which means that young people gain important research skills and become good critical thinkers. It also requires that they seek to understand the causes of the problem, which leads to the development of systems thinking skills. To succeed, they also need to become strategic, which supports bridge-building, greater understanding, and collaboration.

In order to resist the relentless media and political propaganda that would rile us up with absurdities like the statement that teachers are telling children that white people are bad, or take at face value the proposition that schools shouldn’t teach values, a Solutionary Framework fully engages teachers and students with the exciting and meaningful work of finding common ground in the effort to build schools, communities, and a country dedicated to greater justice based on shared values that the students can name themselves.

Few, if any, people would argue that values such as compassion, fairness, integrity, kindness, honesty, and perseverance aren’t good qualities by which to live, but even these don’t need to be imposed upon students. Young people themselves can identify the values they believe are worthy. I guarantee that none of them will say bigotry, hatred, or oppression. Having asked thousands of young people what they consider the best qualities of human beings, no one has ever named such things.

When we seek to uncover and develop solutions to our problems with our agreed-upon values at the forefront of our minds, amazing events unfold. When common values are embraced, there is receptivity to different perspectives and stakeholders. Then the solutions young people devise stem from collaboration despite differences in opinions or backgrounds. It’s not that this is easy or smooth work. It is messy. But because finding solutions, rather than winning an argument, is the goal, the work leads to answers that most everyone can agree upon. It also helps students find and build a community of solutionary-oriented people.

Since young people can learn to effectively create solutions to our problems, shouldn’t we embed such a process into schools? Wouldn’t that benefit not only our children, but also our communities, nation, and world? Such an approach would also lead to a populace that may finally tire of the shouting that has divided communities and created even more stress among teachers. Let’s remember, the great majority of teachers are dedicated professionals who work to prepare students to be the best versions of themselves that they can be and to become contributing citizens in a nation—and world—that needs their good minds, big hearts, well-developed thinking skills, and experience solving actual problems.

We may not be able to employ a solutionary process in a conversation with neighbors. We may often find ourselves struggling to keep a solutionary mindset in the face of such a polarized society. But we can and must embed the Solutionary Framework into school curricula. Doing so offers our children the best preparation to build a future where they and all people, animals, and nature can thrive, and where we will be able to put an end to our culture wars and create a culture of understanding and peace.