On SEL Day, Focus on Building a More Perfect Union

Mar 10, 2023 10:00:00 AM

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We all know the immortal opening phrase of our Constitution — “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union” — and its promise  to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility” for all citizens. 

Many of us also recognize the mixed feelings associated with being summoned for jury duty. But what may not be so clear is the idea that other than voting, the highest exercise of citizen responsibility and greatest demonstration of one’s social and emotional skills may be serving on a jury.

The United States is unlike most other countries in the power it puts directly in its citizens’ hands, an expression of self governance. Of course, people vote in many countries. But few others rely on juries to decide criminal guilt or civil liability; that power typically remains with judges. 

Our reliance on the jury system is a particularly American expression of the idea that legitimacy is built through the consensus of regular people, educated in such a way that they have the interest and ability to pursue justice on behalf of the common good. 

So what does this have to do with social-emotional learning (SEL)?  

Producing the Jurors You’d Want

As we observe International SEL Day (March 10), it is crucial to remember that part of the promise of education is to produce citizens who can discern the truth so they can understand the world as it is. 

And in that jury room, there may be no clearer use of social-emotional learning than in pursuit of that goal. SEL skills such as taking the perspective of others, conflict resolution, communication and detecting social cues, equip citizens to solve problems as a community. They are at the core of being a good juror, and a good person.

A jury of our peers reaches a verdict by coming to a consensus. Jurors must evaluate evidence and decide how important it is and talk with each other about it. In fact, part of the standard instruction judges give to jurors is to listen to each other. It combines the cognitive and social emotional in a way that reflects the messy realities of problem solving in the real world.   

When a jury works well, jurors listen to each other’s perspectives and experiences that shape how they view evidence. They argue and resolve conflicts. They find a solution with which the entire jury can live.

When a jury doesn’t work well, some jurors give up and go along with a verdict they see as unjust, merely to end the process. Or they fail to reach a verdict, forcing another jury to resolve the issue. Sometimes chairs get thrown or the decision reflects a commitment to power over justice

Think about who we would want in the jury room with us. We’d want jurors who can tell bombast from evidence, who prioritize justice over power. We would want people who can see perspectives other than their own in the pursuit of the truth. These competencies aren’t just useful in a jury room, but in life. 

Education’s Role in Creating a More Perfect Union

This SEL Day, themed around uplifting hearts and connecting minds, I’m calling on educators to embrace our responsibility to help produce the people you’d want to serve on a jury alongside you. 

Or the people who could be your doctor. Or your police officer or anyone else in your community who you count on to contribute to the common good – people who ask each other, “What kind of community do we want to be in?” People who strive for a society based on governance instead of grievance. People who inspire us all to navigate a more perfect union. 

This is why social-emotional skills need to be taught and celebrated. Schools create our citizenry and help decide whether it is imbued with indifference or a belief in our shared capacity to pursue the ideals set forth in our founding documents. We desire people who are imbued with the capacity to create shared narratives about who we are and who we want to be, and the capacity to breathe life into a vision of “we the people” that truly reflects the American nation.   

Educated citizens improve the society they live in. They resolve conflict by keeping the common good in mind, and they are equipped to understand truths about themselves and the world.  This SEL Day, let's recommit to an education that delivers on this vision. So that when the final verdict is rendered, we can all agree that who people are is just as important as what we know.  

David Adams

David Adams is CEO of the Urban Assembly, an educational nonprofit that offers SEL programming to schools around the country. He also is on the board of directors of the national Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

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