Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

What I Learned in High School About This Year's Election

Can we please disagree without being jerks?

What did you really learn in high school?

I mean, I know the subjects you studied, I know the tests you took, I know that a number two pencil figured prominently in your day-to-day existence back then…but I’m asking a different sort of question. 

What…Did…You…LEARN?

I went to school with Carter in the White House and then the Reagan revolution. I believe Mr. Reagan beat Mr. Mondale pretty badly during my senior year of high school. 

And here’s what I learned.

I remember my American History teacher imploring his students to think carefully about our country and about how we understand it.  He also told us that although he could “personally understand how someone could be a Democrat”, he just couldn’t understand “how a smart person could be a Democrat.”  He always laughed when he said this, and somehow it didn’t feel mean.  It felt playful.  My friends and I, dorky rebels that we fancied ourselves, ran around on a Friday night that election year and stole all of the Democratic Party signs that we could find and put them in our teacher’s front yard.

And what did he do?  (He knew we were the culprits, by the way.  A bunch of snickering nerds in button down shirts and Bermuda shorts are always gonna get caught.) He smiled, got right up in our faces (literally) and he issued a challenge: 

“You can be a Democrat or a Republican or anything else you want to be…but I will not tolerate you doing anything this important without thinking.”

He paused. 

“So,” he continued, “You don’t have to do this.  This is not an assignment.  But, as an honorable response for the hassle I now face in removing those joker’s signs from my yard, I want you all to prepare for the class, at some time this year, a paper or a speech telling me what you believe, and why.  This is an election year.  Tell us what matters.”

Some of us were going to turn 18 that year, so this was pretty good advice. Some of us were actually going to vote. 

And because he didn’t yell at us, because he didn’t spew hate, because he respected us enough to voice his own opinion and then allow for the possibility that we might thoughtfully disagree, because of all of these things…we all took him up on his challenge. 

And thus began my affinity for the Democrats and what they stand for, and thus began my best friend’s affinity for the Republicans and where they stand, and most importantly, thus began the enduring lesson that we both imbibed; we could disagree, my best friend and I, and we could still be pals.  We even each served as best men at each other’s weddings. To this day we still have spirited political discussions, but we don’t spew hate.   We discuss what we believe with civility and a beer and a few choice obscenities.  We studiously avoid being mean spirited, and we without question often disagree.

Still, I need to cool down after these talks. We’re allowed to feel strongly, to feel passion for what we believe, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let our disagreements interfere with our friendship.

What a great lesson my American History teacher taught us.

Do we need that same lesson taught this year?  Duh.

But are we up for teaching it again?

Boy, I sure hope so…

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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