Commentary: Teachers, model civil discourse and moral citizenship

By Judd Kruger Levingston

As school leaders, we have an opportunity to use the inauguration of the president of the United States to model civil discourse, citizenship, and moral education. We are in an ideal position to affirm that the most remarkable thing about a presidential inauguration is that it is peaceful and not remarkable.

As President John F. Kennedy intoned at his own inauguration 56 years ago, "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

As one of the teachers and administrative leaders in my school, it is easy to see that in these days leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, some of our students have been feeling their passions running especially high, some from a position of great disappointment and some from a position of great excitement.

Some students got into a wrestling match on the day after the election, while other students are avoiding some topics of conversation with their friends to avoid arguments and conflict. Some of our seniors are looking at issues such as immigration, foreign relations, and wars overseas with young adult eyes as they approach their 18th birthdays. Some are wondering about health-care expenses when they leave home.

Heated discussion took place among members of the administrative team about whether and how to observe the inauguration. As one colleague put it succinctly: Some teachers and students might want to watch the inauguration to celebrate, some to witness, and some to prepare for dissent.

The administrative team looked to me, as faculty chairman of the Honor Council, to find ways to ground our experience of the inauguration in Jewish values. The council is a student-faculty committee charged with promoting integrity and Derekh Eretz, which translates as, "The Way of the Land." Among its many activities, the council promotes our honor code for tests and quizzes, plays a judiciary role when major disciplinary issues arise, and recognizes acts of kindness and decency through weekly nominations and selections for what we call, "Honorable Menschen."

The council agreed to begin by sharing Jewish and nonsectarian resources to ask the students to appreciate the Jewish concept of constructive disagreement. Two ancient rabbis known as Hillel and Shammai disagreed on many different areas of life, but they and their children still learned and celebrated together. They can serve as role models for us, 2000 years later. People may disagree about the role of taxes, health care, and about a wide range of other political and social issues, but we have to hold the value of a shared community above all.

Then the council agreed to spark student discussion about how to prepare for the inauguration and the incoming administration in ways that are informed by our school's six Derekh Eretz values of honesty, honor, humility, community, fellowship, and modesty. In advisory groups, students discussed proper conduct and behavior and civic responsibility in a school wide audience for the inauguration.

Affirming our civic values can create a strong sense of community through an appreciation for democracy and majority rule; an appreciation for the rights given to us in our Constitution; and a recognition of our shared history as Jews and as Americans who came to North America in search of safety, freedom, and opportunity.

Our work as educators, parents, and citizens is to help others to find the words and actions to affirm, criticize, protest, praise, or, as the case may be, merely wait patiently and with hope while the new government begins to take shape.

As each new generation of students comes through our doors, we teachers continue to see ourselves as undertaking yet another phase of our life's work. We can't even begin to fulfill any of our aspirations without civil discourse, so, to paraphrase Kennedy, let us begin with our young people and model the highest levels of civil discourse and moral citizenship.

Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, director of Jewish studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, is the author of "Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools." jlevingston@jbha.org