The American psyche is built on the image of the rugged individual….a nonconformist maverick who stands alone in charting his or her destiny. And while it serves a purpose in old western films and folklore, it holds us back today.

Consider the parallels in these two disparate examples:

Sports have become remarkably focused on individual stats, trades, and owner and player interactions. This fuels fantasy sports leagues, where fans build their own “teams” from an array of players from different franchises, tracking those players’ individual performances. It’s not really a team at all – it’s one fan touting a collection of athletes based on their personal stats. Add to this the sports betting industry, enticing fans to put their money where their mouth is, and it takes on a life of its own. In an age of isolation and impersonalization, there is an allure in this. Though nearly everyone loses money gambling, the bets keep on coming. It provides a sense that, in spite of all the ways you may feel marginalized in everyday life, you can still strive to be a rugged individual in your own little world. It’s not really about the teams and games….it’s all about you!

Public education falls prey to these same dynamics. We generally understand that American education’s mission is to provide a skilled, learned citizenry that contributes to society. Yet when you talk to stakeholders, their points of reference are often their own school experience from decades ago, their needs as parents today, and their priorities as taxpayers. None of this has anything to do with the actual learning taking place in classrooms. In fact, it often has an adverse impact on teaching and learning, losing sight of the greater good. It’s a reflection of our polarized, politicized society that schools and school board meetings are a new battleground. When you feel entitled to force my-way-or-the-highway confrontations with educators, you aren’t really thinking about students or learning….it’s all about you!

The most tragic implication of this rugged individualism is manifested in students who feel so isolated and alienated that they strike out violently against their communities. From Parkland to Newtown, Columbine to Buffalo, we all recognize this is not working, yet people react by digging in even more in their John Wayne-ways. As long as this continues, it’s all but impossible to build consensus towards a solution.

Of course, sports is not as high-stakes as education. After all the talking and speculating and wagering, everyone has to face the final score. It doesn’t matter what any individual believes or says or wants to will into reality. It rarely even matters what any one athlete does. A team wins or loses together. Everyone has their role, and everyone contributes. If one player has an off day, others have to pick up the slack. Imagine the strides we could make if everyone worked together like this on behalf of education!

The first thing public education needs is a level playing field. Our schools are not a fantasy league where we compete against one another, picking winners and losers. Education needs to be transformed into a “citizenship league” where we all come together to ensure that all students are connected and supported and successful in school and in life….and not just locally….globally.

We know better. The world portrayed by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, D.W. Griffith, John Sturges and Sergio Leone no longer exists, if it ever did. The longer we cling to this mythology the more it costs us in lives and futures and prosperity. Our sustainability….our very survival…depends on our working together.

We all belong. We all make a difference. It’s all about US!

Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Constituent Services at ASCD, leading its affiliate, connected community, professional interest community, student chapter and emerging leader programs.

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