Imagine a world where people see each other across political differences with curiosity and respect, one where we genuinely want to work toward outcomes that serve everyone’s interests and needs.

That may sound trite or naive, especially here in the U.S. as we approach the 2024 election. But we all have the ability to develop the skills we need to bring that world into existence—and here, I’d like to highlight one of them: “moral imagination.”

A group of young people working together around a large table

According to Darcia Narvaez and Kellen Mrkva in their paper, “The Development of Moral Imagination,” that’s the capacity we all have personally and collectively to envision better outcomes: “An imagining individual uses abstraction capabilities with emotions engaged,” considering multiple possibilities for what is right and mutually beneficial in a given context.

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Crucially, this capacity is centered in “a heart’ view,” where one engages a sense of emotional connection to others while seeking to work toward the common good. For this reason, they write, “moral imagination requires an avoidance of simplistic thinking and a degree of ideological complexity rather than rigidity.” It calls us to rise above binary, tribal mindsets and to include others–even those we disagree with–in where we want to arrive.

To be sure, this project is already underway in countless forms, including what some still call the “civic renewal movement.” Moral imagination is alive and well in organizations like Braver Angels, which hosts local events and national gatherings for adults to rebuild trust across the partisan divide. But the field of education offers perhaps the most fertile ground for planting seeds of civility–and imagining alternatives to the present–that we hope will grow over time.

I have tried to foster moral imagination in my own classroom, because I believe that teaching basic moral and civil values to young people is one of the best investments we can make in our shared future. It may even help change our national politics sooner than we think.

Empathizing across differences

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, I wrote in Greater Good about an approach to teaching empathy that I co-piloted with another teacher at a very Blue school in San Francisco.

Our purpose wasn’t to encourage students to bend their political beliefs to support Trump, but to widen their hearts and minds to see more clearly why half the country had voted for him. Practicing emotional and cognitive empathy can be an act of moral imagination in itself, if these ways of feeling and seeing lead to a more humanized view of “the other.”

For those who question how this approach is helpful if the other side cares only about power, there’s a strategic upshot as well. Understanding others’ experiences, needs, and values helps sharpen our own, and true dialogue can strengthen the clarity and persuasiveness of our own most cherished ideas.

Through this experiment on teaching empathy, we found that with proper training and modeling, even 6th graders can learn to practice the habits of civil discourse better than many adults do. Each subsequent national election year after 2016, I taught a fall humanities course called “Can we bridge the divide?”, which emphasized the importance of dialogue more directly. I first asked 6th and 7th graders to write letters to difficult people in their lives and try to help resolve a conflict. We then applied this principle to politics with randomly assigned role-plays, where students were asked to faithfully represent the views of Democratic or Republican politicians after doing some initial research. They enjoyed the chance to debate each other with ideological lines crossed, and sometimes these exchanges led to unexpected insights into the other side’s assumptions and values. 

Particularly with controversial social issues like abortion rights, gun regulation, and climate change, students’ moral awareness was palpable. They wanted to practice moral decision-making, and by engaging in respectful dialogue with each other their moral identities came into view. All of this is part of practicing moral imagination and indeed strengthens the habits of “envisioning different alternatives for action,” as Narvaez and Mrkva put it. Beyond role-playing, students knew there were real-world stakes to these debates. And this way of facing the ethical dilemmas of American politics with openness and curiosity made the nature of partisan discord clearer.

With malice toward none

In the fall of 2020, deep in one of the worst phases of the pandemic, our school resumed in-person learning just before the November election. The toll that distance learning and so much isolation had taken on all of us was as present as the ambient dread the country felt about Trump and Biden. Yet outside our very Blue school in San Francisco, it now seems that this was a shared experience we failed to envision fully for its moral possibilities. Amidst widespread fear, closed-mindedness, and mutual recriminations echoing across America, we all had so much in common.

I remember the converted classroom in which my students sat masked at specified distances with plexiglass between them. The weather had recently turned cold and the windows had to remain open. During that first week back in the building, 6th graders who had previously known each other mainly over Zoom slowly built trust and formed new friend groups. Our humanities course had just begun, and I hoped that the theme of bridging divides would help them at school as well. As Narvaez and Mrkva note, “Individuals high in moral imagination are more likely to extend regard to individuals in their environments who are members of outgroups or strangers.” In other words, we can apply the same kinds of thinking to broaden our perspectives in middle school and national politics.

It was with this hope that I introduced Braver Angels’ “With Malice Toward None” pledge. In homage to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the pledge affirms a willingness to accept others beyond our stories of who is right and who is wrong:

Regardless of how the election turns out, I will not hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently from me. Whether I am pleased or upset about the outcome, I will seek to understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently and will look for opportunities to work with people with whom I disagree.

Particularly for adolescents, developing empathy and compassion for those who fall outside social in-groups is key to moral development. Research shows that from infancy, humans have an innate drive to care, to be helpful, to nurture and be kind to others. But as we progress through middle childhood, social norms make it easier to think in terms of in/out groups and to see distant others as separate from the sphere of care.

Here is where educators can stage a crucial intervention. By actively engaging differences with curiosity and respect, and promoting moral imagination, we help young people extend their moral horizons and create a template for the future. Through prosocial experiences with previously out-grouped others, all of us can remember our capacity to care. This lesson applies within school communities as well as national communities, and the practice of bridging divides has the power to re-humanize others in all social contexts.

To deepen this practice in 2020, my 6th graders began a pen pal exchange with 5th graders from the Brownell Talbot School in Omaha, Nebraska, a Purple independent school in a mostly Red state. After being randomly assigned by their teacher and I, students wrote initial letters (using Google docs) to get to know their pen pals before the election. Some discovered that they had a lot in common. Others learned to tolerate the discomfort of getting to know someone with different views and values. My students shared the “With Malice Toward None Pledge” with their peers and commented on whether they chose to take the pledge and how they felt about it. The Omaha students replied in kind and shared their ideas. For the most part, it seemed that everyone could agree not to hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for their pen pal, no matter who their parents planned to vote for.

After the election, students continued their exchange and compared notes about the uncertain results. The country was hanging on the edge until key states were called for Biden on November 7, 2020.

Then the period of Trump’s refusal to concede began. In real time, our students in San Francisco and Omaha followed the news and shared what they thought about it with their pen pals. At a Zoom event we held in early December, they finally had a chance to meet each other.

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My Omaha teaching partner and I agreed to call this a Civil Discourse Symposium. Students first had some time to talk informally with their pen pals in breakout rooms, then we opened up the main room to anyone who wanted to share what they learned over the past few months studying American politics.

We didn’t quite know what to expect. But students from both schools rose to the occasion, offering appreciation for their pen pals and fresh insights into the issues dividing the nation. Parents and other adults in the virtual audience marveled at how these young people could talk about political differences with patience, curiosity, and respect. It seemed clear that the cross-country exchange had an enlivening effect on students’ ability to think critically and empathetically.

Indeed, as Narvaez and Mrkva write, “Imagining and understanding another’s reality can change how one thinks and may even instigate investigation” into underlying causes and conditions that would otherwise go unnoticed. In those final dark days of 2020, this was a much needed dose of hope for the future, and a sign that democracy in America was thriving even under pressure from current events.

The underlying causes of our polarized status quo are numerous and will be debated for some time. Yet the vast majority of Americans likely agree on a basic principle, which opens many opportunities for practicing moral imagination: we don’t want our children or their children to inhabit a social landscape marked by mistrust, incivility, and toxic polarization. Adults from Blue states and Red states alike see that young people are our future. So whatever political differences divide us this year or down the road, we can hopefully align on the common project of imagining a more civil society.

In 2024, we all need more opportunities to practice moral imagination like this: to reach, at least in our minds, across the barriers of politics, culture, and geography to see more clearly what we have in common with apparent others. When we remember our capacity to think and feel in these ways, much more becomes possible–and the divisions we face in the present take on a completely new light.

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