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A Hard Look at America: Confronting Our Problems through the Learning Zone

It’s been three months since the historic occupation of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The violence and destruction that was perpetrated by a mob of people who believed that the presidential election had been fraudulent was a disturbing demonstration of the political and ideological divisions in the United States.

As I watched news coverage and listened to commentary on January 6 and throughout the next few days, my thoughts often turned to the failure of our education system in this country. Many of the people who broke into the Capitol were professionals, tradespeople, and business owners, some of whom graduated from US colleges and universities. It should cause us grave concern that this group had been persuaded by fabricated allegations about election fraud that were soundly rejected by more than sixty courts, including the US Supreme Court.

But my concern has also been focused on elected Congressional officials—96 percent of whom have a college degree—who commented on the January 6 happenings on that day and since. Their statements about this country showed a troublesome lack of understanding of history and our current reality.  

I heard many phrases like “This isn’t America” and “We’re better than this.” David Cicilline, a US representative from Rhode Island who has a law degree, wrote in the New York Times that January 6 “marks one of the lowest points in our country’s 245-year experiment in democracy.” Amy Klobuchar, a US Senator from Minnesota who has a law degree, said at Joe Biden’s inauguration that the United States is a nation “with liberty and justice for all” and referenced legislation that has been passed to “protect civil rights and economic security.” President Biden, in his inaugural address, referred to the United States as a country that has “never, ever, ever failed.”

As I heard these remarks, I felt a serious disconnect. We’ve never failed? This is our lowest moment? This is not America? Have they forgotten about nearly four hundred years of slavery, the genocide of Indigenous people, the Civil War, the public lynchings of thousands of Black people, Jim Crow laws, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the systematic disadvantage—by law and practice—imposed on people of color for decades?

These fantasies and statements that deny the realities of history and view the United States as a country that lives by egalitarian principles keep us from learning from the past and improving the future. If we can’t see that we live in a fundamentally flawed country—even while acknowledging our strengths—we will not be able to change the things that are wrong.

Tom Senninger’s Learning Zone Model (2000) helps me understand how these statements of denial keep us from learning. Senninger’s theory identifies three “zones” that affect students’ ability to learn: the panic zone, the learning zone, and the comfort zone.

In the Panic Zone, little-to-no learning happens because we’re using almost all of our cognitive resources dealing with fear and anxiety. For the last few years, I have been writing about how bandwidth—the available cognitive capacity of our students and faculty—is seriously taxed by racism, basic needs insecurities, traumas such as the pandemic, and national events like the siege on the Capitol. This is why kids (and adults) don’t learn when they’re hungry, when they’re being bullied, or when the trauma of their lives takes up all of their bandwidth.

In the Learning Zone, people feel safe enough to share ideas, test out new ways of seeing the world, admit we may have misunderstood or believed wrong information, and listen to the ideas of others.

But right now, too many of us are stuck in the Comfort Zone, where ideas are not challenged and people are able to remain comfortable in their beliefs. Assertions like “This is not America” and “We have never failed” are the statements of people desperately trying to stay in the Comfort Zone. There, they can continue to believe the United States is the “beacon on the hill” and an example of freedom, democracy, and justice. It takes up lots of cognitive bandwidth to protect ourselves from accepting the fact that we live in a flawed country run by flawed humans.

We can learn many things while safely in the Comfort Zone. Many of us learned to read and write, do math, and understand the basics of science as we experienced the love and support of family and friends. But if we want to learn about the hard things—equity, economic justice, and real democracy, for instance—we need to leave the Comfort Zone and brave the Learning Zone, where we encounter people who have different ideas, whose life experiences do not bear out the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” or who have been systematically and intentionally (for almost 250 years!) left out of opportunity in this “land of opportunity.”

This learning can only happen if we can talk with people across all kinds of identities for authentic conversations about how the United States looks very different based on your position in it. Only when we accept that our country is flawed can we open our minds and hearts to honest appraisal and be open to the kinds of changes that will be necessary. Where better to nurture this learning than schools, from early learning settings through high school, college, and graduate school?

If 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have not convinced us that the US education system needs serious self-examination, I don’t know what will. As educators, we need to be at the forefront of the courageous journey into the Learning Zone, where we have enough bandwidth to realize personal and systemic transformation to bring about a society where all people can both survive and thrive.

Cia Verschelden is special projects advisor for the integration of academic and student affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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