We in the United States have been experiencing troubles. “Troubles” is a term used to describe public unrest and disorder. On January 6th, we witnessed the storming of our Capitol and violent attacks on Congress. Riots and protests brought on by racial injustice, mass shootings, and hate groups fuel our troubles. Conspiracy theories and the spreading of dangerous misinformation spark our troubles.
Amidst our troubles, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem persuaded the state’s legislature to spend almost one million dollars to establish a new South Dakota Civics curriculum. She said the “common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world.”
That comment made me recall a Pickles cartoon in which Grandma tells Grandson, “You’re unique and special, just like everybody else.” Some people believe in American exceptionalism – we’re the best and the brightest ever – but what about the people who question that or who think every nation is special in its own way?
If our mission is to teach students the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world, are we going to let students use their critical thinking skills to analyze that statement – or will we insist they accept American exceptionalism and feed them only information that supports that goal?
I’m proud of the ingenuity, tenaciousness, and strength my pioneer ancestors demonstrated as they survived and even thrived on the Dakota prairie. They came from Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and who knows where else, and they worked hard to create a better life in what was to them a new land full of much needed opportunity. But I’m not going to deny the slave ship captain in the family tree that was discovered by my historian uncle, or ignore the duplicity and inhumanity that allowed European immigrants to acquire the land of the Indigenous people.
It’s natural to want to feel good about ourselves and our nation, but not at the expense of truth and excellent reasoning skills. If we’re truly patriots who love America, we embrace our country, warts and all, and accept the fact that all people – and nations – have strengths and weaknesses. If we can’t be honest about our mistakes, our faults, our ignorance, because we’re clinging so tightly to our superior identity, we won’t be able to develop, to adapt, and to learn from anyone whose viewpoint is different from ours.
From 1968 to1998, Northern Ireland experienced the conflict commonly called “The Troubles,” a turbulent time in which a low-level war was fought between Catholics (Irish nationalists) and Protestants (British unionists). Catholics wished Northern Ireland would become one with the Republic of Ireland and Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
I visited Northern Ireland several years ago and learned that the Catholic position in The Troubles did not necessarily have anything to do with religion. As our taxi driver stated, “I’m Catholic, but I’m not religious.” The Troubles resulted from a history of injustice and prejudice, and they were eased through cooperative efforts to reduce anger and promote greater fairness throughout society.
Northern Ireland suffered The Troubles because Protestants thought they were more special than Catholics and vice versa. But The Troubles became less troubling when Queen Elizabeth apologized for the injustices her government had inflicted on the Irish Catholics. On my tour of the Republic of Ireland, our Irish tour guide became quite emotional as she expressed her gratitude for Queen Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of oppressive actions and injustice on the part of the British. When someone sincerely apologizes and takes responsibility for the harm that was done, fear is reduced, and trust can be established. We really can’t trust someone who isn’t aware of the pain they have caused, because people are unable to change if they do not recognize what needs changing.
Education for Mutual Understanding was a program established in schools in Northern Ireland to ease The Troubles and they are currently promoting a curriculum entitled “Integration Works – Transforming Your Schools.” Students are taught to listen and empathize and are given skills to help them respond to personal and systemic injustice with compassion and creativity instead of anger and aggression. Healthy forgiveness is emphasized, meaning having the courage to confront issues with a genuine desire to understand, while working for peaceful solutions beneficial to all. Students are not taught that one group is more special than another but are instead asked to respect the inherent worth of all people.
Our brains are programmed for survival in wild environments and therefore our default system leads us to revenge, aggression, and competitiveness as we fear we won’t have enough resources or will be harmed by “the others.” We may grasp conspiracy theories instead of scientific explanations because they fit our preconceived notions and biases and require less effort to understand.
To avoid troubles, we need education that helps us understand how our brain works and that improves our thinking skills. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are dangerous, but the good news is we can be taught how to evaluate information and search for valid, reliable sources. We can learn skills that help us appreciate different perspectives and develop the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
While teaching high school, I encountered students who were surprised to learn they could be angry without lashing out or running away. Because I didn’t lose my temper (usually, anyway) they assumed I was never angry. I assured them I did get angry, and we talked about ways to be assertive instead of aggressive or passive – to control our anger so it doesn’t control us.
I remember a situation in which students in rival gangs were invited into a mediation session that focused on creating win/win solutions. Students were amazed to discover that their foes had feelings and concerns much like their own. What was the secret to their discovery? One student explained, “I’d never listened without interrupting. I’d just assumed I knew what the others were thinking, and I only cared about what I thought.” Members of each side were able to express themselves without interference, and they then worked on fixing the problem, not the blame.
In that mediation session, the students were forced to listen to each other. The desire to listen compassionately to those outside our in-group doesn’t come naturally. Why? Because we may hear something that could upset our view of the world and our cherished beliefs. Changing our thoughts and behaviors is stressful. We worry about what our in-group will think. We could lose relationships and important connections if we’re seen as sympathetic to “those people” – the others who aren’t like us.
But it can be exciting and freeing to break down the wall we’ve constructed with the building blocks of fear, unclench our fists, quit gnashing our teeth, and let new insights and awareness flow through us. There is freedom in forgiveness and there is joy in learning and discovering.
Recently, Northern Ireland has again been plagued with violence. Brexit and economic problems have sparked rioting. These new troubles remind us our ability to effectively resolve conflict needs constant work and effort. Our mental and spiritual health requires tending in the same way our physical health does. If we do not keep working on our forgiveness and peaceful problem-solving skills, they will atrophy and our fight-or-flight instincts will predominate.
If we truly want a peaceful, just world where all human beings are respected and treated fairly and kindly, we won’t choose a curriculum that dictates one nation or one type of person is more unique and special than another. That’s the type of curriculum that was taught in Germany and Japan before World War II. If we want to avoid troubles, we will teach our students how to be kind, respectful, generous, and forgiving to everyone, not just to their own group. We will give them the skills needed to analyze and evaluate information.
And we will remind them they are unique and special, just like everyone else.