The Conflict Narrative & the Human Brain

You may recall the following forms of conflict from one of your secondary English literature or composition courses:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man vs. Self

Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but it’s fair to say that almost every tale, story, novel, movie, or TV show going back thousands of years contains some form of conflict. We can’t get enough of it – to the point that there is almost a formula for summer and December blockbuster movies.

This week, a group of education leaders from across the state convened at Jeffco’s Warren Tech to discuss the nature of the conversation on public education. CSU professor Martin Carcasson presented on the current state of hyper-polarization and some of the root causes for that.

Carcasson indicates that our forms of problem solving and governing (i.e. adversarial court systems, winner-take-all elections, yes or no votes on incredibly complicated issues, and the existence of two oppositional political parties) don’t lend themselves to collaboration and understanding. But that’s just part of the issue.

Even more deeply, Carcasson pointed to brain science findings, and how the architecture of the human brain also contributes to this problem. Specifically, Carcasson noted:

  • We crave certainty and consistency.
  • We are suckers for the good vs. evil narrative.
  • We strongly prefer to gather with the like minded.
  • We filter & cherry pick evidence to support our views.
  • We avoid values dilemmas, tensions, and tough choices.

None of this bodes well for our hopes to emerge from this era of acrimony on the national, state, and local levels when it comes to public decision-making. Yet, this is exactly the kind of difficult engagement work we need to do.

I remember when I was in graduate school at Seton Hall, Sarah and I spent summers in the NYC area while I attended classes. One night (with Sarah over-ruling my objection) we saw the Broadway show Wicked.  To summarize (without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it), there is more to the mean old Wicked Witch’s story than we know. And, once we get to know the green-skinned Elphaba as a person and understand her circumstances and options, we start to empathize with her choices and actions.

Here in Jeffco, I have no illusions of some grand coming-together in the near future. Especially in the current election atmosphere, where the goal seems to be scoring points and trying to amplify the scant into the scandalous.

But, I think we need to consider the long-game here. Looking beyond November, how might we create conversations where we are hearing and valuing each other? That’s certainly a question I’m wrestling with – and it’s safe to expect some kind of opportunity to engage … post November.

Feel free to share some of your thoughts and ideas, and I’ll respond when I can.

 

4 thoughts on “The Conflict Narrative & the Human Brain

  1. Dear Dr. Glass,

    Since becoming our Superintendent and Chief Learner this past July you have steadily produced information and ideas for our community to consider on this blog, and shared more on Facebook and Twitter. The responses to your posts are a glimpse into the minds of the Jeffco community, ranging from those who agree and trust what you are saying, those asking critical questions for clarity and understanding of what you said, and those who completely disagree and offer criticisms of you and the District’s work, both past and present. These are the voices of Jeffco- people who live here, work here, pay taxes here, and vote here- they all want to be heard. Making decisions for 86,000 kids in Jeffco Schools comes from the power of the voter voice, current parent or not. The same is true for decisions made from the State Board of Education, Colorado legislators, right up to the federal government. Communicating frequently and often to the entire community, not just parents, is key to building understanding and establishing trust about our schools across Jeffco. I often wonder why there are so few responses to your direct request for engagement here compared to what can be seen in Facebook threads or Letter to the Editor in our public papers. It might come down to trust.

    Regarding trust: for some it is given freely and for others it must be earned. Does the community trust the work of Jeffco Public Schools? When did we start talking about our community, and specifically about our schools, in a “we vs. them” mentality? You are asking a very challenging question here because you are asking the community to move beyond anger and blame to help create real solutions towards student success. What is student success? How do we define it? That’s challenging work, especially as we continue to battle budget issues, overcrowding, and many different viewpoints about what constitutes an adequate education and what amount of taxes are appropriates to support these needs and wants. I don’t know what engaging in this work together could look like because since moving to Jeffco four years ago, I haven’t seen a year without an election that causes division about the direction of our schools, pitting neighbor against neighbor and turning complete strangers into sworn enemies.

    Diversity breeds innovation. I respect your efforts to reach out into the community to gather diverse perspectives, beginning these complex conversations because it builds respect. It tells the community that under your leadership you are willing, ready and able to ask the tough questions and earn the trust and respect of all stakeholders in our public schools. It says to me that together, with their engagement, we can build something we can all be very proud of: a rigorous network of schools providing a free public education that is as diverse and unique as Jeffco itself. But you as a Superintendent and all District staff can’t and do not want to do it alone. You are asking us, the community, if we have the capacity to come together and unite over our common concern for the future of all kids in Jeffco Schools.

    So really you are asking if the community is ready for a culture shift. To work civilly and respectfully as part of a diverse team invested in the success of all kids in all our Jeffco schools. The places and spaces you provide to meet and talk, both online and off, are a great start. Continuing these efforts will require the keyboard warriors to come out from behind the screen and productively engage in the heavy lift of moving Jeffco Schools forward into the next century. It’s scary for a single community member to speak out, to self identify and step forward as a leader after so much division and discord, but let’s give it a try. Why not? After all, there are 86,000 kids counting on us to find solutions and prepare them for the future. It seems like a chance worth taking to me.

    I speak with anyone and everyone about everything and anything, especially our schools, and I strive to do so with a open mind. I’d enjoy the opportunity to meet more of Jeffco and invite anyone to contact me at anytime. Who knows, we might soon be teammates.

    Katie

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  2. I’d like to think it’s possible, though even under the best conditions it will take a lot of work and a really good mediator to get there. It will also likely mean involving new (or newer, at least) voices that span the political and community spectrum in hopes of facilitating fresh conversations and avoiding knee-jerk responses to “personalities,” so to speak. That’s tricky because most of the people already commenting on this blog or otherwise participating in the larger district discussion are the same people speaking to the school board during public comment, participating on the District Accountability Committee (or local SACs), etc. We’re here because we care, and we care a lot. But we need to expand that circle and bring new voices to the table. That’s going to be a challenge due to busy family schedules, transportation challenges, and more. Nevertheless, Jeffco needs to hear from a lot more voices. I applaud your efforts to reach out to as many of the different Jeffco community groups as possible and wonder whether you might build on those early connections to see if people from those groups could be included in those conversations.

    In addition, a good mediator is essential to keeping the conversation on track, keeping any one person from monopolizing the conversation (or yelling over people or otherwise just being rude), and maybe even to help everyone practice reflective listening so that we can truly hear what other opinions are out there. Ideally, the mediator will also help — or challenge — everyone to think more about the opinions they hold and whether they’re truly practical.

    Establishing numerous small groups might help ease scheduling and driving distance challenges. Establishing a few virtual groups may also help, even if the online format often allows people to be more aggressive and less reflective than is ideal. Perhaps some work could even be done within articulation areas to bring together PTAs and SACs from a few neighboring schools along with a few local community groups to discuss current issues two to three times per year.

    It won’t be easy and likely won’t be pretty. But maybe despite all of that, we’ll end up better understanding each other as a community.

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    1. Thanks much for this, Lisa. Indeed, we need to expand our circle. Tomorrow is election night. Regardless of the outcome, I think we have to work to positively and productively re-engage the community.

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  3. I have been pondering this question since you posted it several weeks ago, and after seeing the strong reactions to your first attempt as superintendent to do something different, I feel compelled to write a reflection. It is long, but stay with me until the end where the real suggestions are.

    At this point in life, my husband and I are about to send our youngest child to college, so we could easily disengage for a while (for me, as a Jeffco employee, just to a point). At the same time, this issue of “tribal” confrontation has become kind of an existential question for me. In the US, we have a tendency to think that polarization is an exclusive American problem but, you see, I didn’t grow up in the US, and I live with a very global perspective: I have been here since 1994, and out of six siblings, I have three brothers who have lived in several countries, in and out of our country in Europe. Unfortunately, this is a global problem.

    When I saw this blog entry, I started thinking: what have I learned in my 14 years as a Jeffco parent and my 11 years as a public education employee that could help us to have constructive conversations about difficult issues without damaging our relationships as neighbors and coworkers? At first, I thought I could approach these questions from the point of view of the social scientists and economist in me, “everything being equal” and “let the data talk” as the guiding principles. But as the days passed, I realized that whenever I try to think of schooling in Jefferson County, I can’t leave behind my personal experiences and the experience of my children as students (good, bad, in the middle).

    After realizing I can’t leave my experiences behind, I asked myself: can I expect others to leave theirs? Is it even fair to ask one another for this? At that point a bigger question came to mind: is in this competition for personal experience validation when others become “the others”? In school context terms, is it more to it when we witness something like funding fights of GT parents against IB parents, or marching band parents against football parents? And, since sharing our personal experiences make us vulnerable, do we try to hide behind some pretension of rationality or higher moral ground to convince ourselves and others that our positions are more valid?

    So instead of pretending I can be objective, I decided to make an exercise of vulnerability and bring to the table some of that personal perspective and experiences that shaped my opinions, and try to use this exercise to propose some actions that may help.

    I was introduced to the American and local education system after having children, as I became the primary parent for school-related responsibilities. Therefore, as a new parent eager to learn, I happily went to school fairs, open houses, volunteered in the classroom, was recruited for PTA, became an officer myself, dragged along my husband as an officer, and at some point found employment at at another school district first, and then at Jeffco.

    I imagined that with such a perfect attitude and eagerness to learn, I would never feel like “the other” to somebody else, but I did. I did when the secretary at a neighborhood elementary told me that “the principal didn’t have time for people like me.” I thought “like me” meant the person with a heavy accent and less than perfect English. I learned later that she probably meant somebody considering buying a house in the neighborhood in late October, and not knowing yet if that would be our kindergartener’s school. I felt like “the other” when I was bypassed for the CDM committee at the elementary school, at a time when the majority of members have left and there was great need of candidates. After years in the PTA, I felt I wasn’t considered knowledgeable enough just yet, but probably the reason was that I was more needed exclusively committed to the PTA. And I felt the most like “the other” after the contentious elections of 2013, when all the years of parent involvement in my children schools started to mean nothing for some parents, as I was seen as suspect for the mere reason of being a Jeffco employee. Still today, I feel it whenever somebody tells me that I am not really an immigrant because I am not poor and I am educated, or when I hear that since I will soon be a “non-parent” in Jeffco, I should stop sharing my opinions so eagerly and let current parents take the front row.

    So why it I am so eager to stay engaged? First, just when my kids are about to be gone from the system, I truly have the time to volunteer more. Second because, if it is bad enough to be “the other” as a parent it is even worse to see my kids feeling like “the other.” More than once they have experienced being labeled in some way or another by adults that should have known better, so I really want to use what I learned from them to help other children.

    I want this reflection to be positive in some way. What can we do to move beyond “the others” confrontation? Personally, the first step I have taken is listening and considering that other people have their own experiences. I really have a hard time when somebody throws slogans at me. As an example, I struggle with the slogan “educating ALL children” because as a parent of a child with special needs, I rather go for the “each” instead of the “all.” It is still difficult to consider their point of view because at the same time I don’t want my perspective to disappear. But I am trying to read what is behind the slogan. Is it the fear of unintended consequences, the fear of systemic side-effects that limit access to a big number of students? I don’t want that either. I also think that if we want their support, we would benefit listening to the broader community and not treating them as not belonging. This is hard especially for residents that are also employees, but we must. As a county resident, I am starting to feel like that and I am not even out as a parent. We should ask ourselves, what can we learn from their experiences?

    At the end of the day, we all want validation of our experiences when we engage with other people. I like Lisa’s idea of mediation mentioned in the previous post. I also think that maybe some smart social scientist in Jeffco could develop some kind of script or tool with questions considering experience validation to guide our conversations. Some sort of collective “I hear you.” It would be good to know that our fears and our beliefs are being considered when we voice an opinion, without the need to win to feel validated. Maybe that way, we won’t see it as a personal catastrophe when we have to give up something for somebody else to get what they asked for.

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