Opinion
Federal Opinion

How to Engage on Education’s Flash Points Without Melting Down

Political polarization isn’t inevitable
By Rick Hess & Pedro A. Noguera — March 16, 2021 4 min read
Illustration of blue and red pointing fingers

Pedro A. Noguera: We witnessed one of the most troubling attacks on democracy in the history of our country play out in January. There’s a lot of polarization in America and not a lot of principled discussion to reach better understanding. Many people choose to live in echo chambers and consume media that reinforces their opinions and values, and that’s not good for a democratic society. You and I were able to have a respectful dialogue about some of the polarizing issues in education for more than a year. Given the current political context in the country, do you think it’s still possible to have civil dialogue amid disagreement?

Frederick M. Hess: In the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol and the shadow of Donald Trump’s campaign of lies, things feel bleak even a few months later. It can feel like the anger, suspicion, and distrust bred by a 24/7 social-media culture are at risk of tearing our nation apart. However, even as the fierce partisans on each side look to stoke and justify their anger, most Americans want something better. For many, the big question may be what you and I learned in this exercise that might aid those seeking to escape the culture of distrust. What helped make our collaboration a success?

Noguera: You and I know from years of experience and talking to superintendents that practicality in these discussions is essential. We need leadership and the will to solve the challenges facing our schools and to address the needs of our most vulnerable children. When people of different backgrounds work together, we have a better chance of solving problems and furthering educational opportunity. It’s easy to be an ideologue when you’re not in charge of things, but you have to deal with complexity and nuance when you’re seeking practical solutions. It’s a mistake to fall into the trap of viewing every issue as cut and dried.

Hess: For me, the biggest takeaway may have been just how much our modes of engagement can shape the content of our exchange. In a culture shaped by tweets, sound bites, and viral videos, we all tend to have conversations in the moment, with passions running hot and more focus on talking than on listening. You and I have done plenty of media appearances and panels where it feels like what everyone wants to hear is a killer quip or a devastating rebuttal. It leaves little room to ask honest questions, listen, or reflect on what’s being said. That requires time, patience, and emotional distance, which are exactly the kinds of things that an extended email conversation—like ours—can make possible.

Noguera: Listening and slowing down your response also lets you take the time to consider the other person’s perspective. It’s easy to vilify those we disagree with if we fail to reflect, especially on issues as complex as those in education. During our exchanges, we avoided this tendency by taking time to really listen to where the other person was coming from as we explained how and why we think the way we do about the issues. We shared the information and evidence that we rely upon to inform our views and perspectives. For example, when we discussed school discipline, we acknowledged the need for schools to be safe and treat children fairly and that this requires helping schools respond to the causes of behavioral challenges instead of simply punishing kids. Delving into each other’s views on these questions helped us see where points of agreement lived within our larger differences.

We talk a lot about courageous conversations, but there’s nothing courageous about a roomful of people nodding in agreement.

Hess: Today, when there’s terrific pressure to be a reliable member of one’s team, sharing heterodox thoughts or even just being open-minded can be costly. You and I are fortunate to have reputations and roles that afford us some insulation. Many others don’t. They wind up dragooned by professional demands or peer pressure into espousing dogma and enforcing adherence to their party line. Educational leaders, advocates, funders, and faculty troubled by polarization need to do more to support those willing to reach across the divides. We talk a lot about courageous conversations, but there’s nothing courageous about a roomful of people nodding in agreement. How can we help get more courage into those courageous conversations, especially in schools and universities?

Noguera: I’ve been concerned for some time with how political correctness has influenced discourse on college campuses. On the one hand, respect in the classroom is essential for teaching and learning. On the other hand, if faculty or students are ostracized because they say something that is deemed insensitive, it can become stifling. I encourage my students to let me know if someone (including me) has said something they regard as offensive so it can be addressed. And, since it’s important for students to learn about different perspectives on social and political issues that impact education, I frequently include readings from conservative authors to ensure students are exposed to perspectives that differ from my own. If students don’t encounter views they disagree with, they will be unprepared for the real world.

Hess: In revolutionary France, the Jacobin rallying cry was, “No enemies to the left, no friends to the right.” They meant that no disagreements should get in the way of standing with one’s allies, against one’s perceived enemies. For too many influencers in our debates today, on both sides of the divide, I fear that has become a mantra. When I teach grad students, undergrads, or educators, I strive to challenge those reflexive certainties. That requires having competing voices in the room and working to present the moral and emotional rationales that underlie competing perspectives. It also requires giving learners the chance to reflect, listen, and sleep on the exchanges and not just spar over familiar disputes. Educators are charged with just this crucial work. That’s a big responsibility but perhaps an even bigger opportunity.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as How to Engage Respectfully on Education’s Flash Points

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