How Schools Can Heal Our Nation’s Deep Polarization

By Kaitlyn Pierce

Kaitlyn (they/them), pictured here, is a student from Colorado and a part of Our Turn's Rising Changemakers Program.

“There's no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” -Paulo Freire

Learning about justice movements, activism, and systems of oppression has never been easier, thanks to social media. Unfortunately, social media is also home to extremely divisive discourse, pervasive misinformation, radical ideologies presented as rational, and hate. The rest of US media does little to counteract this and often just adds to the fire. The result: a society that is more polarized than ever, plagued by constant and intense fighting about every imaginable social issue, and people who are too distracted and overwhelmed by the chaos of it all to focus their energy on making people’s lives better. 

That’s not to say that good things aren’t happening all around us; organizations like Our Turn are taking concrete action to improve our education system and there are thousands of nonprofits and campaigns across the country that are tackling all kinds of other problems. Systemic change, however, is notoriously difficult to bring about, and if different groups within society continue to work so vehemently and directly against one another, the outcome will continue to be chaos. These effects are already obvious in current social and political discourse, and it will get worse unless more of us can get on the same page about what justice looks like. That’s where education becomes critical.

I had the privilege of attending a high school that gave me a taste of what a justice-focused education looks like. My teachers were constantly pushing students to think more critically, interpret texts beyond the surface, view issues more holistically, form and defend original arguments, and ask tough questions. I had a year-long class dedicated entirely to non-US history, and another dedicated to the nuances of “knowing” — how we determine what is factual, who makes those decisions, and what the consequences are of framing information in different ways. 

It was by no means perfect and looking back, there were many missed opportunities where my teachers could have acknowledged diversity more thoroughly or connected the content to social justice issues. The school itself also left a lot to be desired in terms of combating systemic educational injustices and I know that many of my peers felt left behind or invisible during their time there. Schools that fully acknowledge diversity and truly center learning on justice wouldn’t leave students feeling excluded or devalued and society won’t ever become less polarized if systems continue to disenfranchise huge groups of people at every turn. 

However, I learned enough in high school to be able to expand my thinking and knowledge outside of school and I have thrown myself into all kinds of activist spaces since graduating: Knox College’s Dare to Care and Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank, to name a few. At the same time, I recognize how easily my life could have taken a different path and how different my values could look right now if I had never been exposed to an education that acknowledged diversity or emphasized critical thinking, and if I hadn’t had the resources to pursue those ideas further. 

That’s where an education system centered on justice comes in. When students learn false or incomplete information in school, they are way more likely to contribute to the status quo described above. They are left on their own to develop the critical thinking and media literacy skills needed to navigate the modern world, and they don’t always find constructive resources to do so. Or, when they do develop these skills, they are left feeling so disenchanted and hopeless about the status quo that they don’t take actions to address it. This makes them much more susceptible to extreme ideologies and less likely to recognize biases or discrimination, especially beyond school settings. This will be disastrous as the media landscape gets even more complicated and more entrenched in politics; how can a democracy survive if people can’t tell what’s real or what’s just?

This pillar of Our Turn’s Agenda — Learning Centered on Justice — resonates so strongly with me because of how central it is to uprooting existing systems of oppression and helping society develop in a more positive direction. Collective justice starts at the individual level, and schools have the opportunity to empower individuals starting at a very young age. No past generations have had access to widespread education that even acknowledged ideas of justice or systemic oppression, and consequently, no generation has been able to dismantle systemic inequities. By changing the education system, we can change that reality from its core.

I firmly believe that an education system that centers justice is our best line of defense against extremism, bigotry, and oppression. It is not about telling students what to believe, but giving them the information and tools necessary to reach conclusions themselves and feel empowered to contribute meaningfully to the world around them. It is up to those of us who are young and who will be taking up space for decades to come to use our voices, take the lead on making this a reality for all students, and reshape our futures for the better.