Teaching Opinion

Schools vs. Elections as Sites for Controversy

By Deborah Meier — February 11, 2016 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I’m writing this with the New Hampshire primary on TV and my trip to Texas in my foreground. Plus snow. Oh dear, what to pack.

The Texas trip is for the North Dakota Study Group’s (NDSG) annual February meeting. It began in response to concerns by Head Start parents about the misuse of tests. I missed just once. It’s been kept going—we haven’t missed a year—by the democratic spirit of some hundred or so “regulars,” who actually keep changing as some of us get older ... and older .... It’s survived some tough debates—academics versus teachers, charges that progressive education has not confronted its own racism, and on and on. Some of the internal debates have even gotten nasty; but we survive. Going there once a year is both an emotionally and intellectually important event for some of us. This year’s topic: second-language learners.

I’m intrigued, Harry, about the picture you paint of academic culture. I’ve spent so little time on college campuses that perhaps I am out of touch. Surely economics departments are not in the liberal camp. And most education schools are still preparing students to “fit in.” I guess the data demonstrate that academic professionals mostly vote Democrat—which may translate to being liberal? As more and more are part-time temps it’s harder to tell who’s an academic. What I’ve noticed in the three institutions I’ve worked for part time is that they rarely live up to my imagined picture: centers of collegial but intense debate, conversation about ideas, etc. Instead, they seem mostly a collection of little fiefdoms—busy raising money to advance their particular line of research. And rarely exchanging views across fiefdoms.

Rarely, then, do students experience what it might be like to belong to a community of adults excited by their ideas, taking each other on in a civil but sometimes even ferocious manner. Even spending four to six years in college does not expose them to a community of lively and curious minds. Instead, except in some small colleges, they experience a faculty divided into particular disciplines or subdisciplines, plus, if lucky, individual professors whom they may like and/or who may advance their careers.

Controversy takes place in America—via radio and TV perhaps, and maybe over some dinner tables—but we don’t see schools as sites for such controversy. As you note, we are understandably afraid that we’ll be accused of trying to brainwash naive youths if we do. And for reasons that I understand, parents and politicians fear that teachers will, even inadvertently, present their own viewpoints in the best light, and hope that students leave their course on “their side.” I love what Urban Academy—a small progressive high school in NYC—does to both prepare their students with argumentative skills and to encourage debate. They often bring in adult experts with different views to make it harder for the staff to unwittingly bias their curriculum. They thus show off the importance of having knowledge—the facts. As I often told kids, “Who’d care about your opinion on baseball if you don’t know the difference between balls and strikes, what a double play is, etc.?”

How can we listen to those we disagree with long enough to even partially understand the strengths of their argument rather than focus on our own clever answers? I plead guilty.

Yes, unfortunately there are good reasons such discussion is harder in racially mixed settings. We are good at pushing each other’s buttons—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. I am uncomfortable with most “skin-privilege” discourse since I’m aware that a great many whites carry with them a long narrative of oppression and are simultaneously trying to shed that story while also clinging to it. It’s far easier for economically and socially secure whites to say “mea culpa.” Maybe too easy.

The Iowa and New Hampshire elections are encouraging and intriguing. I’m struck by the degree of trust involved in the caucus practices in Iowa, for example. How dare they? If we trusted teachers like that .... I wish, I wish ... I was up there in snowy New Hampshire today.

Read Harold Meyerson’s recent piece in The American Prospect, entitled “Bernie and the New Left.” Meyerson looks closely at the way the partisanship of the Sanders-Clinton camps may be leading to another, perhaps unnecessary, split that keeps us from hearing each other—much less hearing Republicans! Pulling apart the heart of the arguments on all sides and the fears the candidates are tapping into can be frustrating or fascinating.

The absence of excitement about “ideas” that the young demonstrate in school contrasts sharply with their excited reactions to Trump, Clinton and Sanders, etc.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.