Throughout the day on election day, nearly three-quarters of a million students across 5,478 schools and all 338 federal ridings in Canada cast their ballot in the Student Vote campaign, organized by CIVIX, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting student engagement in public affairs.
At my school, as in thousands of others across the country, student volunteers started the day early, setting up Elections Canada ballot boxes, laying out rulers and pencils to assist in striking names off the voters list, and listening attentively to the instructions of their teacher while they reviewed the rules around identification, scrutineering and voter privacy.
The vast majority of these young people are years away from having the legal right to vote, but they felt compelled to have their voices heard while meaningfully participating in the democratic process. It was an inspiring scene to witness. We should all feel uplifted by the fact these young people felt as motivated as they were to be a part of the national conversation.
The health of our society is dependent upon the ability of our population to engage in the affairs of community. Voting is perhaps the most powerful way in which an individual can exercise their responsibility as a citizen, but it is certainly not the only way. As the events of the past few years have starkly demonstrated, the thread that holds our communities together is precarious and fragile.
We are angry, irritated and impatient. It’s become increasingly clear that we have lost our ability to listen and to trust.
How can we find our way back to a place where humility, truth and a collectivist mindset can guide our actions? Our youth are looking to us for answers. They are not simply passive observers without the ability for independent thought. They are smart and fearless. What we must never forget, however, is that they constantly look to us as adults, for cues on how to react and behave in a chaotic and fractured world.
We have a moral responsibility and a sacred commitment to honour in how we go about it.
The path starts by allowing for a healthy tension to exist in our classrooms. When young people can explore ideas and engage in discourse within a safe environment under the guidance of an adult who cares about them, there is no reason for us to shy away from difficult conversations. As many school psychologists who work with kids would tell you, we want them to experience disruption in classroom routine from time to time.
If they don’t, they cannot learn the skills and mechanisms required to cope in healthy ways when such situations arise in the future. Schools are critical spaces for dialogue, controversial or not. We cannot pretend that they are sheltered from the world. They are as immersed in it as ever before. What we cannot accept without intervention, however, is a disregard for fact and truth.
As an educator, I have never felt more committed to the work we are entrusted to carry out in our schools. I am, like so many others I know, deeply concerned by the diminishing quality of our public discourse, wrought with hostility, anger and a profound lack of respect. In schools, our job is not to profess the superiority of one worldview over another. It is not to promote the merits of one particular party, candidate or ideology, but to help provide our students with the skills they need to think critically.
To find a common definition of critical thinking among educators is akin to a group of economists trying to agree on future trends in the stock market; at its core, however, I believe it comes down to the ability for an individual to pause, wonder, analyze, gather information and reflect before acting upon a given thought.
The great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." By this measure, we are falling far behind.
If someone were to ask what, in addition to academic and social/emotional skills, we want our kids to leave the public education system with when they graduate, my answer would come in the form of a question: can they read a headline that pops up on their Instagram, Twitter or TikTok feed, pause to ask themselves where it came from, how they know if it is true or not, what aspects of their personal bias has informed their initial reactions, and how someone with an opposing worldview may have come to a different conclusion?
If the answer is yes, then we can rest assured that the respect, compassion, integrity and truth we are sorely missing in our communities today will someday return.
Ben Carr is principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg.