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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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‘Polarization Leads to Paralysis': When Debate Is No Longer Civil, What Happens?

Why diversity of thought is critical to solving today’s education crises
By Rick Hess — April 04, 2023 6 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of education’s thorniest questions. We recently wrapped up the series and reflected on what we’ve taken from the experience. Here we offer a few closing thoughts.

—Rick

Pedro: The whole common-ground exercise has been a good experience for me. Our book, our ongoing dialogue over the last year, and the presentations we’ve made together during a period of so much intense political polarization in the country have provided me with an outlet to vent about the current state of affairs. I feel good about what we have been doing, but I wonder who’s interested in what we’re trying to accomplish through our exchanges. The good news is there seems to be a lot of people who are interested, and that’s why we continue to receive invitations to speak about this project. There are a lot of people who are taken by the importance of us having a dialogue like this, of talking to each other, of trying to understand—not just talk at each other about where we stand on issues.

But there are also a lot of people on the left and right who couldn’t care less about dialogue. It seems that what drives them and what they care most about is winning the culture and political wars that are ravaging this country. This concerns me because I believe that the political system in this country is broken, and our society is really in trouble because we are so deeply fractured. You can’t turn on the news without being inundated by commentators who do nothing to enlighten, only further polarization. And so, on the one hand, I feel good about what we’ve done. On the other hand, I’m forced to acknowledge that it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. I don’t know. I don’t want to be a pessimist about it, but I’m not very optimistic right now.

Rick: That’s a really important point, because, as we’ve previously noted, one of the things you hear on both the right and left today is this sense that catastrophe is just around the corner. And when you’re in a hurry to save the world, you feel compelled to take action right away and by any means necessary. It also means that anyone who doesn’t agree can seem like an “enemy” rather than someone who sees things differently. None of this tends to work out so well. You wind up with bitter divides, solutions that don’t get adopted, and a recipe for frustration.

As unsatisfying as they may feel to those in a hurry, the work of discussion, debate, and compromise build something crucial in their own right. As I think about this whole exercise, I don’t know if you or I have changed one another’s minds on anything that matters. We’ve been talking about these issues and probing for two years and we haven’t convinced each other to think, “Oh, geez, you have it right, and I’m wrong.” But what we have done is found lots of points of commonality and places where we can work together.

I know that, on any number of questions, I have more understanding of and appreciation for the arguments you’ve made. Look, I’ve spent decades in higher education, in Washington, working with education. These are not “right of center” places. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to my friends who see things differently and their views. But the chance to really go back and forth and talk about these things at length, to really develop a relationship has been enormously helpful. The goal isn’t dialogue for dialogue’s sake, nor to necessarily convince those who disagree, but to get to a place where we can find points of agreement, better understand where and why we disagree, and forge the trust that can help us bridge some of our stark divides.

Pedro: One of my takeaways is really the importance of creating an atmosphere where different perspectives can flourish and we’re not shutting down people who don’t think like us. And, you know, I had the experience recently of speaking to my faculty here at USC about diversity in political perspectives. I told them that I believe diversity in perspectives is as important as other forms of diversity, and we must respect it. If we can’t ensure that our students are reading from conservative authors who think differently and champion ideas that are different from those of our faculty, we’re not serving them well. When they go out into the real world, they are going to meet people who support vouchers, who feel threatened by immigration and racial diversity, and who regard calls for equity as a challenge to their privileged positions.

When I shared this perspective, it was surprising to me there were many faculty who told me they agree with me but were afraid to say so publicly. There were also a few people who publicly said, “I disagree with you.” They countered that their students can hear conservative perspectives on Fox News if they want, but they’re not going to hear it in their classes. I responded by saying I respect academic freedom, and I will not tell them what to teach. However, I also said “For as long as I’m the dean, I will support people who express conservative views—whether it be students or faculty—because I think it’s important to have a broad spectrum of ideas in the curriculum and among the speakers we invite to campus.” One of my takeaways is that it is important for people in positions of authority to take the risk and not shut people down because they don’t think like we do. I think this is important for higher education, American democracy, and our future as a society.

Rick: When I look at think tanks or universities, these are supposed to be places where folks like you and me have room to engage with a degree of seriousness and goodwill. We’re not politicians, we don’t have to attract votes, and we have a certain insulation from the passions of the moment.

We’re immensely fortunate in that we get to spend our time talking about ideas and we have a big microphone to share what we have to say. Given all that, it seems like the least we can do is work hard to model what it looks like to engage in a way that respects people who disagree. And I get so frustrated when this doesn’t happen, whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC, pundits at NPR or The New York Times, or professors at major universities. Those in our shoes who can’t be bothered to engage in respectful dialogue are, it seems to me, betraying the responsibilities that come with the roles we’re fortunate enough to play.

Pedro: I agree. When we lose our ability to listen to each other and engage in civil debate, we not only lose the free expression of ideas, we also diminish our ability to address the common problems facing our society. When all we do is to stake out our positions, we’re not really thinking through how to respond to the complexity of problems we face. This is true whether we’re talking about how we educate kids or how to reduce poverty and deal with climate change. If all we’re doing is fighting, we can’t work together to address these and other pressing issues. Polarization leads to paralysis, and that doesn’t bode well for us as a nation.

Rick: Here’s a final thought, which may serve as a decent close for this little endeavor of ours. You know, when I started teaching high school in East Baton Rouge Parish all those years ago, I had a vague notion that education would be a place that would be inquisitive and curious, that we would challenge our assumptions and learn from one another. Over the years, on right and left alike, I’ve found that to be true far less often than I’d hoped.

But this exercise has reaffirmed my faith. It’s strengthened my conviction that we can rise to the challenge. After all, through more than two centuries of anger, struggle, and strife, we’ve managed to do just that so very many times. Thank you, my friend, for reaffirming my faith that we can indeed summon the better angels of our nature.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 14 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Reflections on Common Ground.”

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.

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