As human beings, we tend to define ourselves by our communities. Where we went to college, where we work, the neighborhood we live in, the state we are from, and our political party affiliation all become central aspects of our identity. Our sense of self is, to a large part, defined by our sense of belonging.
The implications of this are immense as this sense of belonging, or maybe our desire to belong, often dictates how we think and act. Predictably, people tend to agree with a statement attributed to an elected member to their chosen political party regardless of how the content of the statement aligns with previously stated viewpoints. This happens subconsciously, of course, but it speaks to how deeply ingrained these community identities are in us. The issue is not that I feel the need to defend my political party and do so intentionally; rather, because my political party is part of my identity as an individual, I am predisposed to think that statements attributed to it are correct.
Clearly, what we try to do as educators is, in some important ways, anathema to human nature. By stressing critical thinking, we ask students to think objectively, when humans are not hardwired to do that. Though it flies in the face of what we tend to do, we must intentionally pursue critical thinking if we want, as John Dewey stated, to “prepare students to participate actively in all aspects of democratic life.” In short, our society depends on us to teach these skills.
This morning, I spoke with the high school about the events of September 11, 2001, and it struck me that none of the students in our school remember that day, nor do they have the ability to truly internalize the way it changed American life. As a quick example, I discussed with them airline travel and how, when I went to the airport to fly to college, my mother walked me to the gate to say goodbye. Our students now take for granted that they need to remove their shoes and belts when they arrive at the airport, and I wonder how many of them simply assume it has always been that way.
My main message with the students was about fear and the ability fear has to dictate what we do, what we think, how we act, and what assumptions we make. The fear Americans felt that Tuesday morning in 2001 was soaked up by American society and caused changes such as the ones seen at airports. For many, it also transformed into anger and, because it is human nature to want to make sense of things, a search for answers and explanations. A particularly insidious consequence of the 9/11 attack is that the worldview of a generation (and perhaps subsequent generations) of Americans changed irreparably as people sought to make sense of the events. Consider this: for as long as our high school students can remember, the US has been fighting the war that started soon after the 9/11 attacks. For them, perpetual war in Afghanistan and Iraq is normal.
The power of our MCDS community is that we get to know the people around us in a profoundly personal way. By interacting authentically—not just in passing—with the people around us, and by stressing critical thinking, we hope that our students will investigate their emotions and ask, as our Theory of Knowledge class stresses, “how we know what we claim to know.” This morning, I asked our high schoolers to make that approach part of how we act in this community.
Never is it more important to question our assumptions than when it comes to assumptions about other people. If there is a way to take a positive step forward from the horrible events of 9/11, it is by making a commitment to always investigate why we feel what we feel rather than reacting based on emotion alone. Then we can use what we discover as a means of doing good in the world. If our MCDS community can define our collective approach in that way, we will achieve something very valuable.