Schools, Health Care, Taxes: How We Can Agree


 Originally published on Open Salon on April 10, 2011:

           The school reform debate is, at its core, merely a reflection of how American society has come to debate contentious matters.  The interested parties take up their positions, and they fire away at each other.  While the wars rage, dedicated people caught in the crossfire are actually trying to get things done.

             Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times serves up two great pieces today on the topic of education.  One, in the New York Times Magazine, profiles Middle School 223 in the South Bronx and principal Ramon Gonzalez’s successes and challenges over the past eight years as students’ test scores have improved steadily and significantly.  The other piece appears in the op-ed section of the Sunday Times, and Mahler comments eloquently on the dysfunctional discourse surrounding school reform.  Both pieces are deeply insightful and definitely worth the time to read.  But reader be warned: Mahler gives it to us straight and does not conceal the fact that dire difficulties lie ahead, both for M.S. 223 and for school reform in general.

             So much commentary on the state of school reform—including my own—is short on solutions.  This results mainly from the fact that the problems are so numerous, complex, and swirled together as to defy prescribed, concrete solutions.  The entrenched interests that Mahler describes in his op-ed piece illustrate this.  It seems, he suggests, that one cannot acknowledge one group’s point of view without alienating the other groups.  When so many politicized interests are competing for power and influence, this should hardly surprise anyone.  Still, there may be a constructive way to move forward.

             Last month, OS writer Jeanette DeMain wrote eloquently on the topic of collective bargaining.  She mentioned her experiences as a negotiator for a union that represents professional educators, and she referred to the book Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  Jeanette’s post explains very thoroughly the strategies that Fisher and Ury suggest for productive negotiations, and indeed the techniques apply most directly to a bargaining process.  But one particular principle stands out that offers hope for public discussion in general, especially when it becomes as polarized and emotional as it has become in our country.  That concept is the identification and alignment of interests.

             As we see in every public argument from school reform to tax reform to health care reform, people tend to choose sides and just hammer away at their talking points.  If people consider opposing arguments at all, they typically do so with the purpose of formulating a counter-argument.  Such a strict adherence to positions and doctrines has made many intelligent people stubborn and inflexible.  The more we hear from the opposing camp, the more enraged we become; then we seek comfort and confirmation from those who share our own views.  The most constructive and helpful aspects of discernment give way to judgment; the nobler elements of synthesis fall victim to sophistry.  This has led us to where we are.

             Ironically, the “special interests” we blame for our problems may actually be our salvation.  At the core of any negotiating position or debating point is an interest.  Interests are rarely harmful.  Parents want their child to learn.  Taxpayers want their money spent wisely.  A corporation wishes to streamline operations.  Workers want to earn a steady and fair income and have safe working conditions.  These are all reasonable interests that spark no controversy.  When people who have these interests take inflexible positions and dig in, however, the harm begins.  Fisher and Ury offer valuable advice on how to separate the interests from the demands.  This is the first step toward a reasoned discourse in any volatile context.

             Granted, if it sounds simple in principle, it certainly poses challenges in practice, and this is not the only step toward meaningful solutions for our society’s most intractable problems.  But it is a starting point, and proceeding from here we have a chance not necessarily to win battles but to transcend them.  We see modest success in this spirit when it comes to the abortion debate.  People can scream and demonstrate on either side of the issue to little effect, but when counselors actually help women and couples prevent the need for abortions, there is less to shout about.  True, someone can then attack the funding sources that give people access to these counselors, and a new fight can begin.  Nevertheless, it makes far more sense to deploy resources persistently to strategies that move us all ahead than to waste our spirit rotating over and over through a cycle of bitter invective, escalating anger, and worthless strife.

             The real question in the context of any kind of reform then becomes this: do we want to be right, or do we want to move forward?  This is something we ought not to let the demagogues decide for us.

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