Public policy debates always involve competing views among diverse stakeholders. As the 2022 legislative session approaches, there are two questions that should be asked in anticipation of a debate that will surely come — addressing civics and history curriculum.
First, are there real solutions that are broadly acceptable to most stakeholders? Second — and this is important — will stakeholders allow for real solutions?
The ongoing battles over curriculum demonstrate that the more emotionally charged an issue — and the more protracted the battles — the more complicated this second question becomes.
According to Harvard Business Review, the problem is that our brains can become “hooked on being right.” Consider these relevant highlights from the analysis.
Picture a time when you have been in a tense debate and defending your position. You start to lose ground. Your voice gets louder. You talk over others — even correct their opinions. Things escalate. You go into overdrive to convince everyone you’re right.
In terms of neurochemistry, your brain has just been hijacked. Or to put it more clinically: “In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that should enable advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building and compassion shut down.”
Notice that among the cognitive casualties of divisive argument is “trust building.”
The article goes on to explain that “the body then makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself from the shame of being wrong” via one of four default responses: fight (keep arguing), flight (hide behind group consensus), freeze (disengage), or appease (make nice by simply agreeing).
If you keep fighting — and seemingly win the argument — your brain floods with adrenaline and dopamine. This feels good — actually, better than good. It’s a feeling you want to replicate. And so the process repeats itself at every opportunity. Thus, we become addicted to being right — and simultaneously learn to resist consensus and agreement.
This information is a useful guide to interpersonal relationships in general, but it takes on particular significance when we consider heated political debates — and the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts around school curriculum. Could it be that an addiction to being right may keep us from recognizing solutions, and instead compel many to continue causing irreparable damage to one of our most important and historically trusted institutions?
In just a few months the Utah Legislature will convene and engage in debate over what should and should not be taught in Utah classrooms. While details are still being worked out, we can assume that some approaches will surely be divisive. But others hold the potential for real and reasonable solutions.
Again, the question that should be asked in this pre-session moment is: Are we willing to recognize, and allow for, a real solution?
Sutherland Institute recommends one such solution — complete curriculum transparency for grades K-12. This could be perhaps the most consequential and enduring solution to the anger and accusations around curriculum issues including critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and social-emotional learning.
There is too much evidence to claim that we don’t have problems in Utah classrooms. Remote learning provided parents a front-row seat to versions of history and civics that, once seen, cannot be ignored.
It’s also fair to say that in Utah, the problems with activism and identity politics in the classroom are — as of today — more isolated occurrences rather than broadly embraced methods for classroom instruction.
Curriculum transparency would diminish the accusations, reveal infractions, and enable an honest debate as to the proper role of parents and of teachers. And speaking of proper roles, it is the proper role of the Utah Legislature to provide the scaffolding for this higher standard of communication and accountability.
Lacking a long-term transparency solution, damage to trust will continue, and the addiction to being right will deepen. Parents will continue to feel they have no control over what is being taught to their children, and teachers will continue to feel attacked from every direction.
Sutherland research makes clear that most parents in Utah still trust most teachers. And most teachers in Utah hold sacred their duty to teach. This parent-teacher partnership is key to the long-term solution.
Complete transparency will strengthen this partnership and facilitate what should be a collaborative and ongoing assessment over both curriculum content and accuracy, as well as the values that should be taught at home, and the knowledge that should be taught at school. A cooperative commitment to curriculum transparency will keep that process grounded in fact rather than fear, and it will protect two vital and trusted institutions — the family and public education.
Rick B. Larsen is president and CEO of the Sutherland Institute.