Hear at Dalton: What We Should Be Learning

Prospective Dalton parents ask: What makes a Dalton student?

We are passionate, vocal, and opinionated—and we articulate these opinions. We read the likes of Marx, Emerson, Orwell, Austen; walk into an History or English class and you will likely hear us vociferously debating their merits and flaws.

But stay the whole period, and you may notice something. Once the bell rings, almost none of us bright Dalton students have changed our minds. Almost all of us leave the debate with the same opinions we had coming into it.

We have learned to formulate our own thoughts and support them eloquently, but in the meantime we have forgotten how to listen.

Conveniently enough, so has the rest of America.

In an issue of the New York Review of Books this past June, George Soros described a recent personal epiphany. Whereas one of his mentors, Karl Popper, “had argued that free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma,” Soros “came to realize that there was an unspoken assumption embedded in his argument, namely that the purpose of democratic discourse is to gain a better understanding of reality.”

As Soros goes on to point out, just because Americans exercise their First Amendment right does not mean they are holding meaningful political debate. Quite the contrary: our political climate today is characterized by extreme polarization and distrust. (Was Obama born in America? Is Scott Brown sexist? Is Ben Bernanke guilty of treason?)

Generally, Americans watch only news channels that confirm their own political convictions. As Cass Sunstein, current head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, comments on this polarization in the Boston Review, “Political seclusion endangers us as individuals, and to the extent that it impedes cooperation on collective problems, it endangers society as a whole.” Instead of addressing relevant opinions and policies of the opposite party, news channels—desperately vying for the largest audience—give the public only what it would like to hear.

In short, neither partisan side truly listens to what the other has to say. This communication gap allows for manipulation of public sentiment by newscasters and government officials alike. Says Soros, “Karl Rove reportedly claimed that he didn’t have to study reality; he could create it.”

America simply cannot survive if each half of the population creates its own reality, ignoring or blindly discounting the other half’s truths.

In Education on the Dalton Plan, Helen Parkhurst wrote extensively on community. She maintains that to function properly, both nations and schools need a strong sense of community: “A school cannot reflect the social experience which is the fruit of community life unless all its parts, or groups, develop those intimate relations one with the other and that interdependence which, outside school, binds men and nations together.”

If schools indeed exist to educate the next generation of voters and to instill unified values in its citizens, our education must in some way address the problems currently facing our nation. Curriculum cannot be one-size-fits-all; specific courses should change with the times.

If we are to rekindle meaningful political debate in America, prestigious schools like Dalton should take the lead. The high school needs a course that discusses political issues—not in terms of Democrat and Republican—but in terms of just and unjust. Ronald Dworkin, professor of law and philosophy at NYU and author of several books, was among the first to suggest this. He has ambitiously proposed that exactly such a class be implemented in high schools nationwide.

Though a small start, Dalton is the perfect staging area for Dworkin’s vision. The new class I propose would examine the morals behind political thinking. Instead of asking, “How will this policy benefit me?” or “Will this law increase revenue?” students will ask “Why does half the country believe in this policy?” and “Is this law morally right?”

Through pointed questions, the teacher would force the student to articulate the morals underlying their opinions. Without actually taking a side and thus influencing the student’s thought process, the teacher would also play devil’s advocate, testing the student’s logic.

Ideally, the student would emerge from the course with a distinctly personal definition of a “just” and “unjust” law, honed through hours of careful consideration and debate. He/she would be able to make a persuasive case for her personal moral system—and would also be able to recognize differing opinions as valid. Furthermore, the student could convincingly articulate why he/she believes them to be wrong. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the course: although prospective students might not personally agree with certain principles, they would have to be able to acknowledge the legitimacy of an opposite argument.

Although not exactly a history class, the course would most likely fit into the history department’s expanding reach. Dworkin himself has even volunteered to occasionally guest teach, but a regular teacher has yet to be found. Other important questions remain: would the course count as a history credit? Would it be a senior elective? Would it last the full year?

There is a chance a trial course will be offered next semester. If it is, it will by no means be only for those interested in politics. It will not even be for those only interested in debate. Stay the whole period and maybe, once the bell rings, some of us bright Dalton students will have changed our minds.

Isabella Giovannini
Age 17, Grade 11
Writopia Lab
Gold Key

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