Just the other week, Pedro Noguera and I finished a new book in which we try to talk through some of the toughest issues in American education. It was one of the most heartening experiences I’ve had in years. As we wrapped up the book (which will be out from Teachers College Press in early ’21), I felt inclined to share a few musings on the exercise and why it seemed to work.
One of the poisonous things about American culture today, more broadly and in education, is the degree to which social media, distrust, and the endless news cycle have fueled hyperpolarization. It’s easy for even measured disagreements to harden into disdain when the most common avenues for encountering those with whom we disagree are angry Facebook posts or snarky tweets.
Part of what’s going on is something that social scientists call “group polarization.” As Cass Sunstein observed back in 1999, deliberation among a group of like-minded individuals tends to make the whole group’s views more extreme. In other words, talking with those who think like we do doesn’t open our minds; it intensifies and calcifies our views. Groups can become so doctrinaire that simply having doubts or asking questions is seen as blasphemous. That’s why conversing with allies provides little insight into the thinking of those who disagree with us.
Pedro and I thought we’d see what we might do to bend this trend, even if just a smidge, in our little corner of the world. Starting last January, back before we had any idea how unique 2020 would prove to be, we began a correspondence that we intended to publish as a book.
Now, I presume readers are familiar with me: Hard case. Ed school exile. Frowned upon by the better sorts of foundation staff. Believer in anachronistic notions like personal responsibility, the importance of kindness and hard work, and supporter of school choice.
And I’m quite sure readers also know Pedro: He’s one of the giants of the educational left—and, for my money, one of the most thoughtful in that orbit. He’s dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education; formerly a professor at Harvard, NYU, and UCLA; an oft-honored scholar, influential advocate, and widely read author.
Pedro and I tend to disagree on many (perhaps most) of the big issues. That doesn’t bother either of us. In fact, that was what made the effort appealing. Candid, principled debate is all to the good. The problem is not with disagreement, but that so much of the debate we see today feels less candid than choleric and less principled than reflexively political.
So, Pedro and I set out to have a frank, principled conversation. We corresponded from January through June, through COVID-19, the great school shutdown, the police killing of George Floyd, the protests and riots, and all the rest. We wound up penning 70-odd letters that dealt with nearly a dozen topics in turn—including everything from school choice, testing, and privatization to civics, equity, and teacher pay.
At the end of it all, I was left wondering how we might foster more of this kind of conversation. I’ve been musing on what made the whole thing work.
For starters, we knew, liked, and trusted each other. More than that, we’re both fortunate enough to work in roles that provide the time to engage in something like this. And we were able to get away from the now-familiar habit of policing one another’s statements with an eye to scoring points or finding cause to take offense. I’m sure I used turns of phrase that rubbed him wrong, but Pedro was willing to engage over the substance and deal in good faith. I tried to make a point of doing the same.
The endeavor also worked because we were able to avoid the plague of “whataboutism.” So many debates today are consumed with those on one side asking those on the other, “What about X?"—demanding endless explanations as to why they didn’t say this or denounce that. Pedro and I were blessedly able to resist treating ellipses as a sign of hidden agendas. Moreover, once we’d made a point or clarified a disagreement, we were able to move on without rancor. That created room for exploration to continue and agreement to take root.
Finally, I think this thing worked because the format forced us to stay with uncomfortable topics—even when one of us might’ve preferred to move on—while allowing us to reflect and not just respond. This made for an all-too-uncommon experience and one that I found uncommonly valuable. I suspect this kind of exercise would be equally rewarding for educators, academics, funders, advocates, and all those frustrated by our dead-eyed divisions.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.