It is April 2021, but I started tinkering with this post back in late 2019 and I’ve never been able to finish it. In the months that have passed I’ve found myself picking it back up again each time another tragic societal moment occurs. Consequently, I’ve been looking at this post quite a bit. There are so many of these incidents, each more complicated than the last. No one has the answer for how to change things. I certainly don’t. Even this post is just my own semi-narrow opinion without offering much in terms of a structured solution. That doubt in the value of this work and the swirling confusion of our times has kept me from publishing this post for the better part of 2 years. Finally, not as the result of any particular global or national incident (in case there happens to be another one going on at the time you are reading this), I decided to wrap it up and get it out there. As you read this, I hope you find something thought provoking. I hope you agree with some of it and wonder about the rest of it. If you’re a parent, should any part of this post resonate with you, I encourage you to dig deeper and find a way to share it with your child.
“That’s just how I was raised.” It’s a throwback saying from a lost time, most often heard as an explanation for chivalry or honest, forthright behavior. Usually followed by the colloquial term “Ma’am” and a tip of the cowboy hat. Possibly a wink. At least that’s how I’ve always thought of it. Somewhere along the way this phrase also became an excuse for bad behavior, ignorance, and just about anything else that’s hard to justify. Watching and reading about the escalating conflict in America today, and January’s unprecedented attack on the United States Capital, all I can hear is “That’s just how I was raised.” After spending more than half of my life considering this phrase, I think it is about time we return it to what it used to mean -and maybe empower an entire generation in the process.
Before we get to that, I think a little background is needed. In the early 1990’s, I spent four years at Auburn University in Alabama. Weeks before my freshman year, the KKK formally declared Alabama a “White State.” Although the intended formality of the declaration was troublesome, the statistics of the university did not do much to dispute claim. In 1992, Auburn University was 7% African American and although there were more than 30 fraternities and sorrorities, none of them were interracial. Roughly 60% of students were from the state of Alabama and another 25% came from Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana.
I met wonderful people in Auburn and made life-long friends who came from one-traffic-light towns and bigger cities like Birmingham or Mobile. I also met more than a few people who had never left the state. During my time in college, I observed pervasive, blatant, unapologetic racism and narrow-mindedness on a level that far exceeded whatever I might have imagined before relocating to this newly declared “White State.” Though I came from Robert E. Lee’s home state and former site of the Civil War Confederate Capital, to some, my accent alone (or lack thereof) labeled me as a “Yankee.” For the next three years, partially as a response to this unjustified stigma, and partly due to the hubris of youth, I found myself seeking out verbal discourse from anyone exhibiting behavior I felt was racist or ignorant. As one might imagine, these exchanges rarely ended well.
Still, I kept at it for three solid years -much to the chagrin of my friends, who all but expected me to embarrass them as they suddenly became unwitting participants in these little moments. After three years of arguments ranging from civil conversations and agree-to-disagree exchanges to the occasional shouting match and even a few physical altercations, it was that one sentence that finally ended it all: “That’s just how I was raised.”
Like I said, I’d heard it before in my youth, but it meant something different back then. In Auburn, it had been said to me over and over again with new context. Unfortunately, I was usually so annoyingly certain of my own position to truly hear these words for what they meant. Finally, at some point I came to realize that when you hear that line it always means the same thing: No one is changing their mind today.
Back at Auburn, I naively thought the line was a cop out. A cheap excuse to end the conversation. Now, I realize that it’s not that at all. In fact, it may be the most, if not the only, legitimate explanation for the continuation of racism and general ignorance in America (and the world).
This is not just about mom and dad. Actually, it’s not about any one thing by itself. Each of us lives and grows within an ecosystem that makes us who we are. It all works together. This is how we are “raised.” Children will always grow to embody the ideas and beliefs of their geography, family, friends and education system. Even in the best circumstances, the combination of it all is never perfect. We’ve all got a lot to learn. What I learned from all those failed arguments back at Auburn, aside from how not to make friends, was that in order to question our own beliefs, especially those imposed upon us by people we love and trust, we must have developed divergent thinking. Maybe that’s where teachers can have an impact.
“Ironically… it is usually too late when you are arguing facts and evidence to prove what should be universally understood.”
Of course, in our classrooms we can alter the curriculum to give a more complete and unbiased picture of the world. For some reason, that seems trickier than it should be. However, when filtered through a child’s ecosystem, the facts of history are just information which can be ignored or contorted into the narrative of a one-sided life. Anything becomes true if you hear it enough. Just ask the young boy I saw a few months ago draped in the American flag and snapping selfies as he and his parent(s) broke into the rotunda of the US Capital.
Ironically, when it comes to changing minds, it is usually too late when you are arguing facts and evidence to prove what should be universally understood. No matter how conclusive or absolute, plain facts cannot overcome our closely held beliefs unless we are able to accept that we, and all the people we know, might not be right. As Neil Degrasse Tyson so eloquently put it “There is a common problem in humanity where people know enough about a subject to think they are right, but not enough about it to know they are wrong.”
The result of this paradox, also demonstrated in the Dunning-Kruger effect, is that the less diverse or objective our sources of information, the more we assume we have seen the whole picture. This leads us to focus almost entirely upon information that confirms our beliefs. Consequently, we quickly become averse to information with which our beliefs may disagree. In fact, most of us do all we can to avoid this internal conflict, which further entrenches our ideas, misinformed as they might be.
This is such a commonly shared practice that it may appear to be an example of human nature. However, I believe it is more a function of nurturing. That nurturing comes entirely from our ecosystems and is why divergent thinking is so important. This skill encourages us to actively seek out new and opposing views which may come from sources outside our ecosystem. It also means we just might change our minds when the evidence is sufficient. Another added benefit is that divergent thinking makes us less exploitable, a condition now viewable on an endless stream of social media posts.
Right now, it just seems like for too many adults in this world it is too late. Sorry if that sounds fatalistic. I’m willing to accept I might be wrong in this assumption. I hope I am. However, the fact that concerns me most is that these adults (as most parents do, intentionally or not) are teaching their own children to think exactly as they do. Their parents did the same for them and the cycle goes back for as long as humans have existed. Fortunately, parents aren’t the only ones focused upon the next generation. That’s the whole reason we have teachers in the first place. Our job is to reach children now and look toward their futures, which may be somewhat in peril, but as yet remain far from decided.
We are constantly thinking about how to use the present to prepare children for that future. So your Montessori child spends every day in an environment where we teach them to think divergently. To look for facts and use them to learn about their world. Then to take the next step and share what they know. Each mixed-age Montessori classroom is a community. Not just because the children occupy the same space for a few hours, but because the teachers make it so. Perhaps that’s just how we were raised as well, but it is most certainly how we were trained.
Like all the other important human characteristics, the groundwork for divergent thinking is laid much earlier than our adult-centric views have led us to believe. Students join the Montessori class at three years old. The timing is perfect, because this is when their awareness of the world has just begun to open up. Over the course of three years together, leaders emerge. Once again, not just because they are already there, but because the teachers directly (and indirectly) empower them to grow. These leaders learn that their most valuable currency is how they serve their community. They become role models. They learn to listen with greater intent to those with whom they disagree instead of ignoring them. In turn, each student comes to appreciate the importance of building trust through words and deeds as well as the consequences of eroding that trust. Instead of avoiding conflict, they learn to seek it with the confidence that they will be able to reach a resolution and grow from the experience.
All of this creates a habit of thoughtful consideration and reinforces the value of plasticity and an inquisitive mind rather than settling for passive consumption and confirmation of bias. We also help children to develop their own filtering systems through which to process new information. With enough experience, they cannot help but ask questions such as “Is this true?” “If so, how, why and what do I think about it?” Without answers to these questions, any conclusion must allow for the possibility of being disproved.
As life long learners, our students are also truth seekers, problem solvers, generous, humble, empathetic, confident, sincere humans whose very existence makes this world better. However, we are only one part of their ecosystem. It really does take a village to raise a child. Maybe if we all do our part, these children will one day fix what is broken out there and when asked how they did it, they’ll be able to say “that’s just how I was raised.”