Like many American adults, I can tell you in specific detail where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001 and how the day unfolded as I learned of the terror attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. I was about one week into my sophomore year of high school, and in my English class in a classroom with a view of the Boston skyline. Because of the confusion of the day, and the fact that the planes that attacked the Twin Towers took off from Boston’s Logan Airport just 3 miles away, we were dismissed early. I found my younger brother and we walked home, confused and on edge.
In the week since an extremist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and staged a chaotic insurrection that shocked the nation, outrage, concern, and confusion have continued to make headlines. But amid the upheaval, students and teachers have continued to come together in classrooms and virtual learning spaces for daily lessons and instruction. Of course, this isn’t the first time in our history when teachers and students have had to grapple with conflict and fear. If anything, we must acknowledge and underscore that education is often a constant. That fact doesn’t make the events of last week any less serious or any easier to comprehend, but it does illustrate just how foundational our schools are to a functioning society. In the face of civil turmoil, it is critical that classrooms provide safe, responsive spaces for their students to explore the events, gain understanding, and ask questions about what happened and what might come next.
The history of debate and civil discourse between candidates running for political office in the United States has long been held up as a pillar of our elections process and our democracy. Typically used as a means to debate policy publicly, defend positions, and appeal to voters, debates bring candidates into the same space and ask them to adhere to a set of agreed upon rhetorical rules of engagement. As we approached the first 2020 presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, many hoped for a sound policy discussion that would leave them with a strong sense of each candidates’ beliefs and positions. What we saw instead was a distressing abandonment of our accepted norms and expectations of civil discourse in favor of a confusing, hostile, and demoralizing exchange on the global stage.