Education Opinion

Commencement Speakers: A Lesson in Understanding Perspectives

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 20, 2014 4 min read
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During this college commencement season, there were more than a few instances in which those asked to be speakers either had their invitation rescinded or withdrew once they became aware of objections voiced by students. A recent New York Times article cited,

Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist. Others withdrew in the face protests: Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, from Rutgers University; Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, from Smith College; and Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from Haverford College.

What a confluence of circumstances. The good news was students on campuses were informed, had developed their own opinions and were willing to speak their beliefs. But as they are leaving the campus and moving into the world of work, we wonder if they are any closer to being prepared to listen to and understand opposing views. Hopefully, the commencement was also a learning experience for those impassioned students as they listened to the speakers who replaced the uninvited and those who withdrew. The article said that those who did speak, for the most part, "...expressed disapproval, warning against political orthodoxy, and insisting that the principle of airing opposing views should have trumped whatever objections there were to the speakers.”

We have serious issues confronting our nation. Domestic debates rage about health care, children crossing our borders and held in detention camps, gun control, poverty, and funding public education...all as Iraq reignites. With each issue, the sides polarize. The side that “wins” is happy and the side that “loses” is not. In fact, both sides become reinforced in their positions and become further entrenched in their beliefs.

Finding, establishing, and cultivating common ground is difficult. What would our country have been like if Lincoln had not been president when he was? Imagine what might have happened had a person been in charge without Lincoln’s capacity to hold a commitment to the unity of the nation. He was concerned for those who had lost the war, understanding what it would take as they yielded to a new society in which blacks and whites were equals under the law, and a new economy that was not sustained by slave labor. He issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. There were disagreements between Lincoln and the Congress on issues regarding the plan, but they did find agreement on a plan to set up schools and hospitals and help people find jobs. The rest, as they say, is history. It took a long time for things to change, but efforts continued. Had Lincoln not led in the 1860’s would we have experienced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s?

Perhaps if we taught seeing beyond one’s own perspective, knowing how to listen to opposing views, and building consensus from a place of common views in our schools, if we required it to be part of college and career readiness, we too could lead a very important change.

There are two ways this can begin to take hold in schools. One involves the manner in which the leadership and teachers engage with others. Decisions have to be made. Often, there is a need for an executive decision without time for building consensus. It seems easier to brace for the opposition and prepare a defense. Over time, this can become the tool for divisiveness and disrespect and does little to contribute toward unified thinking. Especially at this time of year, one can witness teachers encouraging and supporting their students hoping that their hard work will be represented in the students’ performance on a culminating assessment. Right there, in that spot, is where everyone can agree. Everyone wants the students to demonstrate what they learned, to pass the test, to reveal all they know. Now is a good time to gather the troops and acknowledge their feelings, and create a shared moment, one in which common ground is acknowledged. This moment creates a well from which to draw when things get tough. For teachers and leaders alike, remembering why we do this work and expressing it during potential disagreements is powerful key. “How is this good for the student(s)?” is a good place to start. There may be disagreements about whether something is good for students or not, but the discussion remains focused on them.

The other involves a shift in the way curriculum is delivered. In many schools, this does take place in a lesson or unit of some kind, but imagine if the entire curriculum was shifted. History offers the most obvious opportunity where perspectives can be learned, not lectured, not read, but experienced. It can happen in literature and art, in mathematics and science. It can be learned in physical education and drama and in technology. Understanding perspective is a human quality that we can develop in our students through the practice of offering them the opportunity to experience it in every classroom. It isn’t something to add to what is being done. Consider it a kind of flipping. There are flipped classrooms, and flipped faculty meetings. We are suggesting flipped learning with the purpose of teaching empathy; learning how to listen to, truly hear, and understand other perspectives. The practice of designing learning that embeds the understanding of perspective and the valuing of those who hold other perspectives may yield future graduating classes that offer welcome to commencement speakers with a wider range of views. Consider for a moment the surprising commencement address delivered by comedian and actor Jim Carey to Maharishi University of Management’s class of 2014.

It is a 27 minutes well spent. Commencement speakers can surprise you.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.