Bullies everywhere. In the media. In politics. Bullies killing innocent people.

So how did we get to a culture where incivility, bullying, and intolerance seem to be the new normal?

For starters, we have been teaching all of this for 16 years in K–12 schooling. In effect, we have bullied students through our federal education policy for 16 years. We have given them a number, measured them daily against a set of arbitrary criteria, and made them repeat grades (research indicates that for many students, the thought of repeating a grade is almost as stressful as blindness or a parent’s death), denied them art, music, and recess if they did not perform!! We bullied teachers (we’ll cut your pay if you don’t get certain scores), we bullied administrators (we’ll fire you, move you), we bullied states (we won’t fund you).

In the organizational research we find the term “isomorphism.” It means that what happens at one level of an organization happens at all levels of an organization. So we embedded bullying into the organizational structure of schools. We actively taught it—bullying and intolerance—on a daily basis. Did we get the academic growth that was the end goal? No. But in most U.S. schools we taught bullying and intolerance. For most of a generation—16 years.

According to Greenspan and Benderly, all learning is double-coded—both cognitively and emotionally. We created environments that were full of latent hostility (win/lose), fear, and measurement. The ability of the brain to learn in such environments is significantly reduced. We frightened teachers and administrators, and that fear permeated learning environments. One sheriff told a school district superintendent, “I was in a first-grade classroom talking to students, and their eyes are dead. What is going on?” We have traded humanity for a set of numbers.

Zhao has hard research indicating that the higher the standardized test scores of a country, the lower its level of innovation and creativity.

Will we be able to return to a culture of civility and tolerance as individuals, communities, and a nation? Not until we return our educational environments to places of safety and belonging in which learning becomes safe again—and the dignity of individuals as human beings with specific talents and capacities is again honored.

Click to learn more about Ruby Payne.