High School Should Be Upsetting

Samuel J. Abrams

By Samuel J. Abrams

High school students today must be put through the gauntlet of confronting real viewpoint diversity and learning to manage differences if our nation is to move out of its current polarized paralysis and actually create citizens.

My thoughts about high school came into sharp focus recently when I had the opportunity to share some ideas with the Academic Engagement Network, a collegiate faculty group that seeks to oppose efforts to delegitimize Israel and also to promote campus free expression and academic freedom.

While I knew my words about open inquiry would resonate with most attendees, I framed them around my own experiences in high school, college and now as a professor. In sharing my story, I was reminded that too many high school students today are leaving school ill-prepared for life in a raucous, diverse and polarized society such as ours.

When students head off to higher education, they enter a world with mob rule and a leftist orthodoxy that dictates the curriculum in many places and regularly produces young adults who are utterly incapable of thinking critically, much less able to contemplate belief systems that challenge their own.

To combat the indoctrination on our nation’s college and university campuses and train good citizens more generally, I realized that high schools must be the area of focus for all Americans, for it is in one’s teens that so much value formation occurs, and thus the skills and ability to question, debate and think is critically formed.

In my high school experience in a pluralistic, non-denominational Jewish day school in the Philadelphia area, I came face to face with questions that challenged my identity and worldview on an almost-daily basis.

At Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy), I had no choice but to form my own opinions on a wide swath of issues from Sabbath observance to questions of gender equity and keeping kosher, as part of a student body was comprised of students who grew up in gender-segregated Orthodox communities and others ate pepperoni pizza and treated Saturdays like any other day off.

The wide band of beliefs and practices at Akiba forced me and my classmates to not only think deeply about our values but to understand and respect the views of those who thought and lived differently than ourselves. Some days were awkward and uncomfortable, but that is part of learning and finding one’s voice.

These lessons have been critical to my teaching, research, writing and commitment to diversity in the 25 years since I graduated.

This unusual and deeply pluralistic approach to education is exactly what is missing in so many curricula around the nation today, religious or otherwise. Even today, the school states that its students “engage energetically, intentionally, and consciously with diversity” and actively seek “understanding through meaningful, respectful dialogue” which results in graduates who are prepared to confront the complexities of the world.

Without such commitments from our schools, where will young people learn the ability to
compromise and accept others’ views as valid and legitimate? It certainly won’t happen in college.

I did not learn the value of pluralism and diversity of thought as an undergraduate; it was in the unique environment of my Akiba experience two decades ago. Regrettably, the kinds of formative experiences that I had in high school are hard to come by amid the proliferation of speech policing and the decline of civics education across the country.

Sadly, survey data have found that a majority of high school students (52%) now believe it would be acceptable to disinvite speakers if some students might perceive the speaker’s message as offensive or biased. Almost two-thirds (64%) support instituting codes of conduct that restrict potentially offensive or biased speech on their respective high school campuses. And 86% support “safe spaces,” or areas of campus designed to be free from allegedly threatening actions, ideas or conversations.

The idea of shutting down and limiting speech that could be “hurtful” to some is unacceptable in a learning environment and antithetical to education itself.

High school students need to be taught the value of debate, free speech and civil discourse; they are clearly not. When asked about the acceptability for students to protest and shout down a speaker, 31% of high school students recently reported that shouting down a speaker is permissible always or some of the time. Another 46% believe shouting down a speaker is rarely acceptable but can be acceptable nonetheless. Over three-quarters of students today (78%) support trying to silence disagreement, while just 22% say it is never acceptable.

While my education was messy and tumultuous, it made me a more thoughtful and well-rounded person. I had an unusual experience that should be the norm, and those of us in the education profession need to confront our students with the fact that they will and should occasionally feel upset, uncomfortable and unsettled by new information and perspectives.

That is how learning happens: through shattering norms and bursting echo chambers so that ideas may flow freely. A good scholastic program should have something in it to upset and challenge everyone, and high school is where we must do this.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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