I think it’s fair to say that things have gotten a bit weird in schools. What started in the Spring of 2020 as a universal sense of disappointment from the pandemic-related shutdown of schools has devolved into divisive finger pointing and vitriol over everything from masks and vaccines to white-hot disagreement over how we discuss race, gender, climate, the American Dream, and a host of other topics. Many of these topics are really important, but the one guarantee I can make is that, unless something seriously changes, there will be no winners. If and when the dust settles, the only thing that will remain is hurt feelings and disenfranchisement.
Some would say that we are in the midst of the next big debate between faith and science. Others see it as a debate regarding individual rights versus the responsibility to the collective. I simply see it as two sides not wanting to admit that they might be wrong, and doubling down at every opportunity to prove it. Distorting truth through the convenient selection of validating facts while disregarding the remaining body of evidence. Weaponizing shame. Unfortunately at times, I recognize myself in this state, as I think most people do.
This isn’t the first time American schools were on the frontlines of deep seated societal discord. In the 1970s, similar scenes of protest and school board acrimony raged over bilingual education, textbook controversies, “new math,” and more. The good news is that we survived. The white-hot flames died down. The bad news is that iterations of some of these same controversies still flare up today, with little change in the opposing arguments.
One might look to this previous era for solutions to our current malaise. I’d like to take us a bit further back in time to the 16th century, and St. Ignatius’ introduction of the Spiritual Exercises. In it, Ignatius makes the following claim.
“… it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If the meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”
Adapted from the Spiritual Exercises  by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert in The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed
This is referred to as the Ignatian Presupposition. I simply think of it as a form of charity, and the lesson to be learned is quite clear. But what strikes me most is that this was written more than 450 years ago, meaning that similar controversies have been an issue for a VERY long time - begging the question, “Why?” With all of our worldly advancements, why can’t we conquer this societal flaw? The short answer is that we simply don’t want to. As is the case in most areas of our lives, change is hard. This is especially true when a particular way of thinking has become a part of our identity.
A similar character flaw exists in business around a concept called sunk cost fallacy where a previous large investment is allowed to substantially influence future decision-making lest the previous investment might be squandered. The idea that the investment will be lost is not accurate. The investment has already been made and cannot be recaptured regardless of what future decisions are ultimately made. This is a hard concept to rectify intellectually and often emotionally, but failure to act with some level of indifference toward a previous investment often prevents organizations from making the correct choices in a dynamic marketplace. Put differently, organizations (and people) are willing to tether their future to the past in part because they don’t want to be proven wrong about previous choices.
It’s important to recognize that being indifferent toward closely held memories, decisions, and values doesn’t diminish them. Indeed, it makes them more valuable as you can see them through a much richer lens. You are able to recognize with gratitude how they have helped shape you within the changing context of our world, and to better adapt - dare I say change - to more boldly face tomorrow’s challenges. This isn’t abandonment of the past, but rather an acknowledgement that your full story hasn’t been written yet.
This brings me back to the current issues playing out within schools, and in a particular way within Catholic schools which have a deep and necessary rootedness in the Church and in their local communities that cannot be ignored. These schools attract certain kinds of people as teachers and leaders whose desire it is to form young men and women of competence, conscience and compassionate commitment. Parents share that same desire for their children. Alumni and benefactors too. Yet somehow, when confronted with difficult situations, we fail to recognize that we’re on the same team with the same goal. Rather than seeking to “put a good interpretation on a statement (or action)” of a school leader, Board member, teacher, coach, OR parent, we immediately demonize, thus reducing the other to enemy rather than collaborator in mission.
Charity and indifference matter. I previously wrote about the need for listening with an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. Even the most polarizing experiences are opportunities for learning, but only if we allow the spirit to move within us, and we are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
So give a neighbor a break today. Really. Give a neighbor a break.
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman is the Founder & President of Arrupe Virtual
vol 4 issue 3