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Compromise, but keep principles

Recent discussion on the “PBS News Hour” focused on concern that our democratic processes require compromise and how that seems to have been replaced with open conflict between political parties. Upon hearing this, I turned to the dictionary to determine the official definitions of compromise and principles.

Compromise is defined as “a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.” In other words, it means the parties to the disagreement would need to abandon their principles in order to compromise.

Principles are defined as “an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct; a person of good moral and ethical principles.”

“In order to form a more perfect union,” where “all men are created equal,” was put forth in the Declaration of Independence as a fundamental principle in the formation of our democratic form of governance. Only recently did I discover that Roger Sherman, who signed that Declaration, is part of my family tree.

During the Constitutional Convention, as a delegate from Connecticut, Roger proposed a solution to a problem that historians have referred to as the Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise. I see no evidence he adjusted his principles to accommodate opposing views between the need for representation by individual citizens, the rights of individual states or the processes of decision making. He proposed to form two houses of the legislature, a senate that represents each state and a house that represents individual citizens.

The Constitutional Convention had representatives from each state, each with shared principles relating to the need to spell out the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens and individual states. They did not represent the interests of political parties.

They met as a group with a commitment to examine needs and seek solutions based on fundamental principles. Arriving at a solution such as was made to establish two houses of a legislature did not involve a compromise of their principles. Thus, in my opinion, the word compromise did not and does not apply to their deliberations. Problem solving was the goal, based on principles relating to human beings and a need to show respect for individual citizens and organizational concerns.

Democracy cannot survive with a compromise of fundamental principles of human needs and rights, of ethics and morality. Compromising those principles would abandon what our democracy was founded on. Abandonment of important principles underlies the conflicts between opposing political parties in today’s world.

Had the Constitutional Convention been made up of representatives of political parties, with their rigidly biased orientations and abandoned fundamental principles, instead of a dedication to solving problems and planning for the future, a democracy would not likely have been formed. We might have agreed to establish a totalitarian state placing control of our lives in the hands of a few. Our principles mattered, as did the processes of deliberation.

In 1949, Leland Bradford and Kurt Lewin formed the National Training Laboratory in Bethel, Maine, to study the processes of group deliberations. Over the years since, insight has emerged that spells out the requirements for a group to successfully face and solve problems, dealing with disagreements that are resolved through group processes.

They found that groups develop through three stages. The initial stage occurs when individuals first come together and members are dependent upon the leader. Although individual members have their own thoughts about what is about to happen, they have not at that stage learned much about the group. They are dependent on the leader for direction.

If the leader is authoritarian, the group members will not likely be allowed to voice individual opinions, thoughts, or goals. They will be maintained in a state of dependency, for better or worse.

If the leader encourages members to express their independent thoughts, the group can emerge into a stage of independence that often is fraught with conflict since independent views have not as yet been reconciled. Through sustained attempts to clarify the positions of each member, commonalities emerge as well as differences.

Understanding the differences is prerequisite to helping resolve the conflicts. Clarity is needed rather than assigning biased judgment. This is required for a group to reach its most mature state, that of consensual validation. This is a stage when communication is open and honest, based on respect for individual differences and alternative solutions to problems. That is likely what was happening at the Constitutional Convention and what should be happening in today’s schools.

Schools place students in groups to receive instruction within a top-down, departmental and compartmentalized organization sanctioned by an elected board that frequently opts to abandon democratic principles. Moving from one class to another for short periods of time is insufficient for processing through the stages of group development. That departmental structure maintains dependency.

As a result, individuals are left to formulate how the bits of information gleaned through instruction can be integrated and translated into problem solving skills and abilities. In a departmental organization, learners are kept at a dependency stage with limited opportunity to develop the skills of conflict resolution or for reaching a stage of consensual validation with mutual respect for fellow humans.

New politicians whose education lacks adherence to principles of group development, like the old, will not likely function with maturity in problem solving and conflict resolution.

Maybe our public schools could produce a new generation of problem solvers to represent us in government at the local, state and national levels, like the members of the Constitutional Convention. Our students would have to be immersed in group deliberations that encourage an escape from the level of dependency, being allowed to express personal views that enable achievement of a level of consensual validation required of a democracy.

Adhering to principles of respect for human needs is required, not abandonment of sound principles for the sake of the appearance of a compromised agreement that leaves both sides with lingering dissatisfaction from less than fully resolved differences. Mature groups would have resolved those differences.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.