Educators and advocates warn that the divisiveness and incivility that's taken over American politics is increasingly being felt in the country’s high schools and even in middle schools. But they say there’s a clear step to take: civics education in schools that encourages students to be good citizens, and talk across social and political divides.
David Bobb, president and CEO of the Bill of Rights Institute, said the concept of polarization is simple: “We’re more trusting of people with whom we tend to agree and less trusting of those with whom we disagree.”
Bobb, who writes about political extremism and polarization, said the trend towards demonizing those across the aisle has left an impression on a generation of youth — prompting them to steer clear of talking about differences.
“The tendency might be to forsake those conversations that might jeopardize the friendship. Because it's just too risky,” Bobb said.
A Stanford study published last year shows that sixth graders are learning to distrust and dislike others based on political disagreements — at an earlier age than in decades past. And experts caution that civil society and even democracy itself are at risk when finding common ground is so hard.
“Meaning, we have a society where nobody can work together when we disagree,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who is director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
Kawashima-Ginsberg said these trends are “a warning sign for us to do a lot better,” and that practicing civic discourse should start at an early age. She supports high-quality K-12 civic education that teaches students how to become positive contributors to democracy.
“That includes questions like: how should we live together as a classroom? How and what kind of rules do we need to live by to be a strong community member? And build a habit of trusting each other even when they disagree on certain things, and not rush to judgment about a person,” she said.
Kawashima-Ginsberg has found in her research that community organizing and other forms of public service can help young people become more active and take a role as a democratic citizen — activities that help students keep an open mind.
“Civic learning is not just about teaching American government in 10th grade,” she said.
Massachusetts schools teach civics at all grade levels and, in 2018, the state created a new class for eighth graders that encourages students to get involved in local government, as well as teaching them about how government works and media literacy. The change came as part of sweeping new curriculum standards around civics.
Karen Washington, a history teacher at Greater Lowell Technical High School, said the new standards have been helpful in preparing students to discuss differing points of view respectfully.
Still, she said they are often hesitant to speak their mind in class.
“They’ll look at you like they want you to say something, but at the same time, they don't want to discuss it,” she said. “They want to keep things peaceful. They're maybe afraid that they might lose friends. Kids might not want to say something in the middle of the classroom.”
Washington says it's imperative that educators remain objective and not project their own views as they help students navigate hot-button issues.
“Mostly it's things that they see and they hear, and they just want more clarification and an understanding of what's going on, what the two sides of the issue are,” she said.
And Washington says she has had success in getting students to directly engage on controversial issues.
“I even had a discussion with one class of a student who was very vehemently against the idea of illegal immigration because of his own experiences. You had a student who was a child of immigrants, and they had a back-and-forth — a very respectful back-and-forth,” she said.
Students say they are looking for help, too. Annelise White is a 16-year-old who attends Abington High School. As a Black person attending a majority-white school, she’s had a number of difficult encounters with classmates.
“There were a lot of conversations that talked about, ‘Is it OK for white people to say the N-word?’ And then there would be kids who would say it, and kind of like make jokes about it,” she said. “And that wasn't cool.”
As a practicing Christian, White says talking about her religious beliefs with peers can also be a challenge, especially with those who came from secular households or had had negative experiences with organized religion.
White says she now feels more comfortable talking about difficult topics after attending the City Spotlights Teen Leadership Program last summer at Boston’s Boch Center. The work-study program recruits teens with leadership potential and helps them develop skills like community advocacy. White said what she learned helped her to engage in more meaningful discourse.
“We talked about what it's like being stereotyped based on where you're from, what you look like, who you hang around, your skin color. There was a big topic with stereotypes, and one was being homophobic, being homophobic and being gay,” she said.
Bobb said it’s also important for adults to model civility and teach young people that the country is not past the point of no return. He points to a 2022 study that found that Americans have more in common than they think. For instance, the study found that registered Democrats and Republicans “grossly overestimate whether members of the opposing party hold extreme views.” In other words, today’s polarization is driven not only by political divides but also by the exaggerated perception of them.
When students see their parents, teachers and administrators trusting each other more, Bobb said, it can empower them to have more meaningful and productive conversations.
“Recognize that it’s OK for you to disagree even on things of profound importance in politics and current events, even history, and still maintain the ties that bind,” Bobb recommended.
White, who is now a high school junior, agrees that negativity plays a major role in polarization — especially on social media. But she’s hopeful that ongoing education can lessen the divide among young people.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. You know what happens outside on the streets. There's just trouble, violence and hate,” she said. “And if we can, as communities, come together and be each other’s peace, we can have a leg to stand on. We can be great.”