Some of the biggest votes of the past few years have been won and lost by very narrow margins: the US presidential election and the Scottish independence and European Union referenda were all decided by fewer than five percentage points.
The divergence of popular opinion in these election results indicates we are more split than ever on major issues. But what lies at the heart of this, and what does it tell us about society? Are these unhelpful opposites inevitable and intractable, or is there another way forward?
Everybody has a right to navigate their own way through our rich and diverse society, and to form their own beliefs and conclusions. To avoid discrimination and intimidation, this right implies we all have a duty to be respectful of others’ views. But what if we go further than that, and actively try to understand opinions that are different from our own?
Going against your instincts, logic and beliefs to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is not easy. But when we truly empathise, we increase our capacity for compassion; and to comprehend another's logic is to realise the limitations of one’s own. We won’t always end up agreeing, but we can learn graciousness.
Moreover, by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we are more likely to identify and tackle together the issues we have in common. Inequality, disadvantage, belonging: these are shared challenges we can unite in addressing. Arguing about the cause of a problem, or about its solution, distracts from the issue itself and blinds us to our shared goals.
As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare children for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. As we live through political uncertainty and continue to feel the effects of the global financial crisis, those determining the curriculum – whether that is a government official or a teacher preparing a single lesson – have a duty to equip children with the social and intellectual capacity to work constructively with others when they disagree.
The British Council Connecting Classrooms programme unites thousands of schools globally, increasing opportunities for learning and sharing between pupils from different cultures and backgrounds.
By visiting partner schools in different corners of the world, teachers can bring back first-hand experience of what unites and divides us. They discover where aspirations and ambitions align, and work with international colleagues to develop pedagogy for learning, work and society. Moreover, enriching the curriculum with international education boosts engagement and can motivate even the hardest-to-reach learners.
Our international programmes, resources and collaboration opportunities broaden learners’ horizons, open their eyes to global thinking and equip them with the skills for today’s world. They can gain insight into the rhetoric used in the media and can critically draw their own conclusions and opinions. Coupled with the right knowledge, and strength in communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving, the next generation can be one of confident optimism.
Schools should be havens for building trust and understanding between people, whether there are problematic differences or not. They aren’t factories of political opinion, but they can be teachers of healthy debate and intercultural collaboration. And if we prepare young people well, we will see the results play out in the future.
An engaged society is a productive one; and a trusting society is a safer one. “Love thy neighbour” may sound old-fashioned – but far from being clichéd, learning to love each other is an educational imperative.
Stephen Hull, senior project manager at the British Council