Lessons from Kindergarten

Last year my wife finished the college degree that was disrupted by her marriage to me nearly 20 years ago. She wants to become a teacher so the shelves and desk in our bedroom are filled with books, educational materials and notes from her recently completed student teaching assignment.

As I sat down at the desk the other day I happened upon a list of expectations for elementary school students. These are the basic life lessons that students need to bring into the classroom for it to function properly. The list probably wouldn’t surprise anyone:

Listen before you speak

Pay attention in class

Respect your classmates

Accept responsibility for your actions

Don’t spread rumors

Don’t hit people

Say you’re sorry if you hurt someone

There’s nothing there that you wouldn’t expect, but I will admit that seeing it all listed out surprised me. I was taken aback because I had seen this list before but in a completely different context. These expectations for elementary school kids almost exactly mirror the principles of the Oshkosh Civility Project as were presented at a public meeting hosted by the Door County League of Women Voters on Feb. 4.

About three dozen folks attended the presentation at Sturgeon Bay City Hall because we all share a growing concern that our political discourse has taken a turn for the worse. The problems faced by our country, and our community, are quite serious. There are no simple answers so we’re struggling to find the best way forward. As a result, good, well-meaning people legitimately differ as to how we should address the issues we face. But in today’s political realm, those differences can lead to demonization. The most common response to a political disagreement is to reflexively attack anyone who has the audacity to differ from our own learned position.

A Marquette University poll found that nearly a third of Wisconsin residents said they lost a friend, or stopped speaking to a friend, as a result of the recall elections in the last few summers. Take a moment to think about the absurdity of that.

You and I are friends. One of us supported the recall and the other opposed it. And because we cannot discuss our political views in a civil and respectful way, our long-time friendship abruptly comes to an end.

That’s just plain dumb. But it’s the reality of how we discuss politics today.

The volunteers of the League of Women Voters are attempting to change the tone of our conversations. They hope to usher in the end of the era of the political diatribe and return to one of political discourse.

The Civility Project isn’t a liberal or a conservative idea. It has no answers to our nation’s problems. However, by using what they call the nine principles of civility, they hope to create an environment in which working together and compromise are not considered electoral liabilities.

The nine principles of civility are:

Pay attention

Listen closely

Be inclusive

Don’t gossip

Show respect

Be agreeable

Apologize sincerely

Give constructive feedback

Accept responsibility

Five of our children are currently students in the Sturgeon Bay Public Schools. As you can imagine, we spend an inordinate amount of time visiting classrooms and talking with teachers. Without exception, I am always amazed at how well our children’s teachers manage a couple dozen rambunctious children squeezed in to a single classroom. Whether you call them student expectations or principles of civility, our teachers do a terrific job creating an environment conducive to learning.

Yet we adults too often fail to honor these same principles. Apparently it’s gotten so bad that community initiatives like the one proposed by the League of Women Voters are popping up all around the country. Their goal? To teach us the same principles of civility that our kids practice every day.

In Oshkosh, these principles are printed on posters that are put up around the community. The principles are printed on business cards and you’re encouraged to give them to anyone who is failing to live up to the principles of civility. Workshops and exercises have been designed to help people understand how these principles play out in real life. Both citizens and elected officials are asked to sign a pledge of civility.

It’s a noble effort, but it’s one that has required a significant investment of volunteerism and social capital.

According to their website, “The Oshkosh Civility Project cordially invites individuals and organizations to consider how attentiveness to patterns and practices of interpersonal communication can strengthen, enhance and build a strong sense of community identity, cohesion and purpose.”

That’s a highfalutin way of saying that maybe we grown-ups just need to start acting like kindergartners.

This column by Bret Bicoy was originally published in the Peninsula Pulse on February 27, 2013.

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