• Brent Kaneft

People Aren't Making Moral Decisions, They're Making Identity Decisions


It's good to write reflections about how events affect you. How do I understand the destruction of Hurricane Harvey? Do I think Confederate memorials should be taken down? Why did I like the McGregor-Mayweather fight? Students need to process their feelings about national disasters, ethical dilemmas, and trending events; writing is a great tool for self-discovery. That being said, there is a danger we teachers face with this "self-centered" approach. We're so happy when kids enjoy writing that we don't consider how this approach to writing limits their understanding of the world.

I teach at an Episcopal school. I am not a religious person, but I do pay attention at chapel. It stretches me. I love the Prayer of St. Francis.Toward the end, there's a phrase that has been rattling around in my brain this year:

"Grant that we may not so much seek...to be understood as to understand."

"See the forest for the trees."

When I attended the AP Summer Institute at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, my instructor, a teacher from the Holderness School, said that to help students on the AP Language exam, we need to show them how to recognize the complexity of the issues they write about. "Shrill insistence is not arguing. Teach them to see the big picture. Recognize complexity." That's proven to be a difficult task, asking a student not to insist first on where they stand on an issue. Most students seek "to be understood," not "to understand." I love the decision for passive voice there. "To be understood" puts the writer in the passive voice; s/he is not actively seeking the big picture. "To understand" takes discernment, work, reading, thinking, listening. In my experience, these are not activities teenagers typically gravitate toward. Our job is to help them with this process.

"Shrill insistence" bears some responsibility for why our country is so divided today. Everyone wants "to be understood," but no one wants "to understand." We've been taught that our voices, our experiences, are all that matter. We are taught to speak up when things aren't fair, when we don't get our way, when we feel oppressed. And while those are certainly not bad lessons, if our emotional response is as far as we go, we limit our understanding of the world. To be scholars, we must seek "to understand" the world around us. For example, though a white male may feel personally oppressed by talk of white privilege, or diversity-focused hiring practices, or affirmative action, if he doesn't seek "to understand" the big picture, then he will only harp on how unfair life is. He will not think about the promotion of others who've historically been demoted; or the racial, economic, and political divisions in his community that prevent progress; or the strength of our country that relies on diversity. His approach is not democratic. And that's the problem.

A democracy thrives when people look to understand first and to be understood second, and that requires sacrifice. But we look around America today, and people are begging to be understood first: "I'm a liberal-conservative-Democrat-Republican-Christian-moderate-fundamentalist-vegan-atheist who just wants to be recognized for who I am." People aren't making moral decisions, they are making identity decisions. Moral decisions are complex; they require time, sacrifice, and courage. Making identity decisions is as easy as hitting the "Place Order" button on your Amazon shopping cart. I certainly don't mean that people shouldn't speak up for themselves, for their ways of life, but I am suggesting that to understand our opposition, to be active in our understanding, requires empathy, communication, and time, things we don't have a lot of as a country right now. Identity decisions are people-centered, moral decisions are idea-centered. People make bad decisions -- they hurt people -- not because of who they are, but because of the ideas in their heads. Let's start with understanding ideas, then we will understand events, and then we will understand people. That's the complex process we should expect from our young scholars.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt


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