In his Oct. 25 Maine Voices column (“Where is the serious discussion and reasonable compromise?”), Norman Abelson drew from decades of observing America’s political system to describe a core problem we face today. He concluded by saying: “The current zero-sum, destructive thought process has helped to bring us to the paralytic state of both the nation’s body politic and, increasingly, its people. Continuing on this self-destructive course imperils this democracy.”

So true. As a recently retired educator, I will draw from my 42 years as a high school administrator and teacher in public and private schools in Maine to propose a solution: Launch a nationwide initiative in our schools to cultivate in our young people the mindset and skills of dialogue as a lifelong habit.

Ambitious, I know. And given the myriad demands on schools today, all accentuated by pandemic learning loss, why focus on dialogue? Because dialogue touches so much of what is foundational to a vibrant learning community and to a thriving democratic society.

Educators know that learning is greatly enhanced when students feel a strong sense of belonging and value at school, when they are curious about new ideas and when they are open to learning. Building the capacity for dialogue reinforces all of these qualities because it requires mutually respectful and caring relationships, a deep sense of curiosity and the courage to speak up and to learn from others. Moreover, teaching dialogue makes clear to youth the motivating message that their viewpoints matter.

Unfortunately, schools exist in the increasingly toxic environment described by Abelson that is, at its core, anti-learning. As people who understand that educating the young is the key to our collective future, we must acknowledge that the educationally toxic environment that surrounds schools is starting to seep in. Take a look at the social media of most teenagers if you need evidence. Even when schools are able to maintain a positive learning environment, as so many do, there is no guarantee that their students will be prepared to keep learning in the anti-learning environment that awaits them.

In addition to trying to keep up with my three granddaughters, all under the age of 3, I spend time supporting the Can We? Project, an “experiment in revitalizing democracy” designed to promote the capacity for dialogue across political differences in high school students throughout Maine. I recently participated in a daylong session at Gorham High School in which 20 high school students and a handful of adults worked hard at expanding our capacity to learn from (and work with) those with different viewpoints than our own.

Many of the students expressed a dark view of America as profoundly broken at different times in the day. That was hard to hear. But rather than giving up, this group of young people responded to an invitation to “revitalize democracy,” stayed fully engaged throughout the day and committed themselves to the idea that understanding different perspectives on the pressing issues of our day is a key to progress. They took to the work as if it were of great importance, which, of course, in a school and in a democracy, it is. If only our nation’s leaders would do the same.

For so many reasons, I worry a lot about the world that my granddaughters will soon inherit. But spending the day with those Gorham students left me feeling inspired and hopeful. I am reminded that while there is wisdom that we, as adults, must pass on to today’s youth, there is also much of great value that we could learn from them.

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