Earlier this year, Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I published A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education. The book is comprised of an extended series of letters in which Pedro and I sought to understand our differences and identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in K-12 education. We’ve been gratified by the response to the book, which moved us to launch a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we continue that conversation. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Today, in our first attempt at this new occasional feature, Pedro and I talk about how polarization and groupthink can stymie healthy discussion.
Rick: What strikes me is, as you and I were writing back and forth on all these issues the education community fights about, we watched this larger debate play out across the country, where everybody crouches with their team and yells these big things as loud as they can, or proclaims them on social media, or shouts them on MSNBC or CNN or Fox. But you and I, who disagree about a lot of stuff—I mean, you’re on the board of The Nation, and I’m kind of an unapologetic conservative—we were able to talk about some of these really heated issues, and I’d come away saying, “You know what, that’s a really reasonable stance. I might not buy it, but I totally get where Pedro’s coming from.” And it just seems like that kind of awareness is such a missing piece from our national conversations nowadays.
Pedro: Yeah, I’ve always valued debate—reasonable, civil debate—with people I disagree with. Throughout my career, I’ve embraced the challenge and opportunity of debate on important issues. I think that’s missing from American politics today: We know there are differences, but what we don’t see is those differences aired in a way that helps people to understand the nuances of the positions that are taken. I think it’s actually important to acknowledge the reasonableness of certain positions that we might disagree with. On so many of the issues that divide us in education and politics right now, there’s a tendency to demonize those we disagree with. I think this is unhealthy in a democratic society. Many of the issues we have discussed are incredibly complex, and if you look at them carefully, a more nuanced position seems to make sense. However, there’s very little room for nuance in today’s polarized debates. Acknowledging the complexity of the issues is an important part of why dialogue is necessary. I think those who listen to the podcast or who read our book will appreciate the fact that we don’t just try to take safe positions on a lot of issues.
Rick: It’s funny, when you talk about safe positions, you and I both have been doing this long enough, and we’re insulated enough because we’ve had some professional success, that we can say stuff that will tick off people who are supposedly on our side. In a lot of these debates, I think people are scared to say the wrong thing, because they don’t want to get cut off from their team, they don’t want people to cancel them, they don’t want their funders to stop funding them.
Pedro: That’s true. The polarization that’s occurred on so many issues has prevented us from really appreciating the complexity of the issues, and as a result, we have difficulty devising solutions that do not produce winners and losers. This is most clear in the ongoing debate over charter schools. They have been framed dichotomously: You’re either for or against. My opinion has been informed by studying this issue closely over many years, visiting many charter schools, and seeing up close how they function and how their presence affects other schools. I can talk in more detail about the ones I like and the times I think charter schools play a constructive role, but I can also talk about when I think they play a damaging role in some districts. Again, the value of a conversation like this with you, Rick, is that we start to break down the ways in which our discussions become polarized and paralyzed by ideological stances, which keeps us from addressing the messy complexity of educational issues and finding workable solutions.
Rick: I think a point that I’ve heard you make time and again is that there’s a realistic, pragmatic dimension to the people who actually do this work well. When you’re actually in schools and in school systems, private and public, you realize how complicated a good school is. That it’s a million things happening, how kids are interacting with each other, how adults are interacting with kids. When you wind up in the world of education advocacy, when you wind up trying to make schools better by writing legislation, you have to simplify. So there’s frustrating disconnect between what happens in the world of education advocacy and legislation and how schooling actually plays out in practice. I get frustrated when I feel like this becomes an excuse for schools not to serve kids well.
Pedro: You know, ed reform is often looking for the silver bullet solution. People watch movies that present simplistic solutions—a heroic teacher or principal—and they think all we need are these charismatic educators to just do magic in schools. Sometimes there are some extraordinary individuals who do in fact do heroic work, but we can’t base policy on that. I think that that’s part of what’s also wrong. We don’t fully appreciate how challenging it is to address some of the needs of kids, particularly kids who come from the most difficult circumstances.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 1 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Introducing the Common Ground Podcast.”
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.