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Last month, while Washington demonstrated its skills at epic non-compromise, I got to watch something magical unfolding in a local elementary school.
Groups of fourth-graders were discussing the merits of work.

The discussion was remarkable for the caliber of reasoning the students brought to the table: Is “thinking” work more valuable than “labor” work? Who contributes most to a community, the farmer or the poet?

As a reporter covering K-12 education in Eugene, Ore., I often get invited to classrooms to see learning in action. I say yes to these assignments as often as possible on the theory that the more I can show people what’s actually happening in our schools, the better they’re likely to feel. I know it’s true for me.

This year, I’ve seen amazing things:

  • Students who created short digital stories about historical sites around town, then made the stories available via QR tags to people’s smart phones as a way of enhancing a walking tour of Eugene.
  • Fifth-graders mentoring second-graders as a way of building community to reduce bullying.
  • High school students running a catering business to learn both culinary and entrepreneurial skills.

Local educators draw my attention to the best stuff going on in their classrooms, but I’m in the schools enough to see the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. I’ve seen teachers so skilled in classroom management they can get 30 second-graders to settle down and pay attention in seconds. I’ve seen kindergarteners learning words that I’m sure didn’t come into my lexicon until junior high school, and middle school math students engaged enough to slow the teacher down and ask questions when they weren’t getting the algebra.

Which brings me to what the kids were doing last week: Led by University of Oregon philosophy majors, the children were engaging in philosophical discussions. The eight-week sessions pair university students with elementary school students in an effort to help them think critically about ideas.

Their teachers tell me that the students, in addition to learning critical thinking and reasoning skills, are also learning that ideas are complicated and questions sometimes have more than one answer. In that setting they are being taught to listen respectfully to each other, to rephrase what they hear their classmates saying to be sure they understand and reason their way toward answers to thorny questions.

I wrote my story for The Register-Guard, a daily newspaper struggling to make ends meet in an era when fewer people pay for the news yet more people are reading it for free online.

But I wish I had a bigger megaphone. I wish everyone in the country could have seen these kids.

They reminded me that we, meaning our political leaders and us voters, have an obligation to listen to each other with respect. We need to reason our way to good solutions for the country.

When the right paints President Obama as an evil socialist bent on destroying American values, and the left paints House Speaker Boehner as an obstructionist toady of the wealthy 1 percent, we stop any movement toward solutions. We all just treat the fight as the story. In our focus on winners and losers, we all lose.

We, the people, set the standard for tone in this country. The politicians have no reason to engage their colleagues in a civil manner. They’re reading us on Facebook and Twitter. They’ve seen our emails. They’ve seen the vicious ugly commentary that follows political news stories posted online. Why should they elevate the tone when the rest of us don’t bother to?

I don’t always agree with my editor about the scope or focus of a story or even whether something is a story. But he and I face daily deadlines. We have a product to put out, and we make our cases to each other. Through that process we often find agreement. Sometimes one or the other of us tires of the discussion and caves in.  We get work done and on the whole, we do good work, though we might quibble with each other on any given day.

We voters need to respect that the elected officials we disagree with represent our neighbors and friends and family, people who want them at the table as much as we want our guys at the table.

And we need to stop assigning blame to whole swaths of the nation. The nation isn’t drowning in debt just because of corporate welfare or poverty welfare, but because of thousands of little decisions — and big ones — we all made. Two wars we didn’t have the cash to pay for probably had something to do with it.

The only way to fix this problem is for all of us, not just the politicians, but all of us citizens to respect the people at the table, to learn about the options, think about them, provide feedback to our representatives and expect them to listen to each other, embrace the best ideas, compromise and negotiate.

Let’s stop calling the other guy’s elected official ugly names. Let’s presume the best, not the worst about each other.

There’s a bunch of elementary school students in Eugene, Oregon, who could show us how it’s done.

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