Waynflete has long valued learning in community as fundamental to their philosophy of education. The more diverse perspectives on a question, the philosophy holds, the greater the opportunity to learn.

This approach requires students to possess the courage to speak up and the skills and mindset needed to learn from viewpoints other than their own. A functional democratic republic requires the same of its citizenry. Unfortunately, at the national level, those capacities are in sharp decline, hampering our ability to address the urgent matters of our time.

With that decline in mind, in March 2018, Waynflete launched an experiment in democracy known as The Can We? Project. Waynflete invited a diverse cross section of American youth from seven high schools in southern Maine to a three-day retreat where the students identified what they cared about most, learned from each other’s perspectives, formulated proposals for a better world and presented their ideas to people with the power to turn ideas into reality. In the middle of this month, we completed the second Can We? retreat.

Making this experiment come to life has been a journey of learning for the adults involved as well. Early on in the design process, Waynflete reached out to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, hoping to tap their expertise in policy and government as well as the think tank’s political viewpoints, which tended to be more politically conservative than those of the organizers.

For their part, the Maine Heritage Policy Center has experienced firsthand how a lack of open dialogue can hamper policymaking – Augusta is rife with examples over the last several years. Believing meaningful discourse can make a difference, the center entered into the partnership with the goals of engaging a younger audience and teaching them how to talk about and solve policy disputes in a civil manner.

Having the Maine Heritage Policy Center on board challenges students to engage with a viewpoint that may differ from their own, which is how students truly learn and grow. There’s so much we can learn by listening – and disagreeing – through open dialogue with one another.

Most importantly, The Can We? Project is not about validating students’ existing beliefs. Instead, it challenges students to reach their third thought, the namesake behind Waynflete’s civic engagement programming. For example, when asked a moral question, people often respond first with emotion followed by the construction of a rationale that justifies their initial response. Thus, to generate true insight into such questions, we must get to at least our third thought, which has been informed by careful listening and deep reflection.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center and Waynflete have created common cause by supporting youth to think critically, creatively and collaboratively, turning their energies headlong into the prevailing culture of division, partisanship and groupthink. Planning is already underway for Can We? 3.0. The incredible success of the participants in tapping the wisdom inherent in their different viewpoints illustrates the potential of democracy to create a better world, which should make every American hopeful about the future.

In the meantime, we cannot afford to wait for young people to come of age to fix our broken world. The partnership between the Maine Heritage Policy Center and Waynflete suggests the kind of work that those in charge now should be doing today.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.