Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Our schools are caught in the middle of culture war crosshairs

Joel Wilson

Even though students may be on summer break, the upcoming school year will prove to be a fateful one for the Idaho school landscape. In case you hadn’t noticed, our schools are caught in the middle of culture war crosshairs. With politics polarized, public discourse becoming toxic, families breaking down, and drug abuse and depression on the rise; many find it difficult to hold onto optimism. It is in this broken ground that extremist views have taken root in the legislature, on our school boards, and now apparently in the superintendency.  One victim in all of this has been our public schools, which have been cast as an easy scapegoat for society’s ills.

Two years ago I saw a young, left-leaning activist have his testimony to the Senate Education Committee cut off after insulting the committee’s educational background and intentions. A year later, he apologized for publicly denigrating Gov. Brad Little. During that same legislative session, a certain right-wing extremist was removed from chambers after losing his temper and directing vulgarities and threats towards legislators. These actions seemed to have been fueled by anger, anxiety, uncertainty and fear. I often speak with parents who are afraid that our society has lost any sense of shared morality. But if there is any lesson to be learned by what is happening at North Idaho College, perhaps it is a canary in the coalmine that extremist politics are not a viable pathway for leading a school system.

Harvard’s Glaeser & Sunstein have shown that if we surround ourselves exclusively with people who have the same views as us, we become more extreme. As seen in the documentary, The Social Dilemma, the problem with search engine algorithms, Facebook friends, and reading the news by narrowcasting rather than broadcasting means that we’re surrounded almost entirely by people whose views, whose opinions, whose prejudices, even, are just like ours. The market and the state add to this equation by focusing on what David Brooks has called “First Mountain” pursuits of profit, power, and self-interest. I have to wonder how much corporations and special interest groups, in these pursuits, influence our elected officials. By standing aside when this happens to schools, we turn our future over to educational profiteers. Good school systems, on the other hand, work in the realm of cooperation, collaboration, and transparency. Good teachers know that it is not a question of “my kids” vs. “your kids,” but that they are all “our kids.”

As we struggle to come back together in a post-pandemic world, our schools need more people who are flashlights and less of those who are hammers, as a former State Superintendent used to say. Educational leaders recognize that this is delicate choreography to lead at a speed that others can follow. I look at the work done last year by the superintendents in Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Genesse, Caldwell, West Ada and Boise, Marsing, Bliss, Twin Falls, Gooding, American Falls, Bonneville, Blackfoot, Aberdeen, and in my own Pocatello-Chubbuck school district. I could name dozens more.  Here I saw master classes in Kouzes and Posner’s framework of inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, challenging the process, and encouraging the heart.  These educational leaders worked tirelessly and thanklessly to bring stakeholders together to support high academic standards and to build Idaho students into decent human beings. The wealth of educational experience on display helped to heal fractured relationships so that solid, win-win solutions could be found.

A positive school culture will grow when we move from the politics of “me” or “my circle” to the politics of “all of us together.” Here we will find a renewed sense of collective responsibility and a renewed unity. Our students need this for the sake of a free and good society and for a hopeful future. By doing this, we may even feel the power of what has been called one the most moving sentences in all of religious literature, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We can face any future without fear as long as we know that we will not face it alone. So for the sake of the future “you”, together with our school communities, let us strengthen the future “us.”

Joel Wilson

Joel Wilson

After 14 years as a superintendent in rural Idaho schools, Joel Wilson served as Deputy Superintendent of Operations for Superintendent Sherri Ybarra. He is currently a principal in the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.

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