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Why cultivating mutual respect in elementary schools is so important to preserving democracy

Why cultivating mutual respect in elementary schools is so important to preserving democracy

Election year or not, the dissolution of respect in our society is as obvious as it is alarming. Indeed, in a recent op-ed titled, “We’ve lost our way on campus, here’s how we can find our way back,”  Washington Post contributing columnist Danielle Allen advocated for the need to cultivate a culture of mutual respect on college campuses. In her view, the college classroom may be a suitable place for correcting one’s morals alongside one’s intellect. As a Visiting Fellow at Boston College and former K-12 teacher, I agree, so much so that I must pose a follow-up question: how might higher education — how might society — look different if we cultivated a culture of mutual respect from the very beginning? 

Allen, like other educators and philosophers, discusses dignity as a basic requirement for mutual respect. What if, in this term ‘mutual respect’, we comprehend something more radical? What if, when cultivating a culture of mutual respect in K-12 classrooms, we went beyond dignity and disrupted some of those prevalent power asymmetries in schools, between adults and students, and among diverse groups of students? In my research with elementary school teachers and students, I observed a commitment to dignity, but I also observed teachers working hard to uphold other priorities that I include in a framework I developed for mutual respect: equality, autonomy, and equity. Put simply, these teachers were intentional about power, using and ceding it in different ways to cultivate myriad outcomes for their students. 

One of the outcomes I witnessed was dialoguing across difference. Other educational scholars suggest that affording students respect in schools may better prepare them to be democratic citizens who engage productively in conflict resolution. One such example from my own ethnographic and comparative research: for over two hours, I observed at a distance as two students — a 10-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl — discussed the harm the boy had caused when he said gay marriage should be illegal. The young girl’s family is comprised of two dads. With two teachers nearby to support as needed, this young girl reminded her classmate that the hurt caused by words does not simply dissipate. Is moral correction more powerful — more lasting — when it comes from one’s peer? 

Different elementary school, similar outcome stemming from a culture of mutual respect: I observed 5th grade students engage in research projects related to injustice. In addition to learning how to respect and correct across difference at the individual level, these students were learning how to advocate for societal, systemic respect. They proposed action projects that would encourage their broader communities to fight against racial profiling and animal poaching; to fight for universal access to education and fair pay for women. Is moral correction more achievable when inspired by our youngest? 

It may be easy to dismiss this work, the work of cultivating mutual respect. Indeed, K-12 schools are faced with myriad pressing problems; student absenteeism, teacher shortages, and leadership churn, all while the pressure to excel academically is persistently paired with mercurial funding streams. And yet, research suggests that increased respect for students is associated with outcomes ranging from equitable achievement to resilience to engagement.

One glance at our polarized society reveals that now, more than ever, we need such civic engagement. The health of our democracy hinges on many variables, one being the productive interpersonal skills of future generations. In his writings on educational theory in the late 1700s, German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed that, “Obedience, above all things, is an essential trait in the character of a child, particularly that of a pupil … [Obedience] prepares the child for the accomplishment of such laws as he will have to fulfil [sic] later as a citizen, even if they do not please him.” In her own theorizing around education, Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator whose educational methods centered around children’s development, was of a different mind. She asked, “How can we speak of democracy or freedom when from the very beginning of life we mould the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator?…These people …whose wills have been broken by elders who say: ‘your will must disappear and mine prevail!’— how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?”

When democracy and society are as fragile as they currently are, are we to simply cultivate obedience? Or must we also cultivate freedom? If your answer to the latter is yes, I offer you this first step in fostering a culture of mutual respect in K-12 schools: Challenge your fundamental assumptions of children. Reconsider what they are capable of, and what they deserve from us. Do this early, do it often. 

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