Dialogue, Free Speech, Inclusion

What are schools for?

The two best classes in my Ph.D. program were taught by education historian, Henry Perkinson.  The first, What are Teacher’s For?, opened my eyes to the metaphors and practices that shape how we understand the relationships between teachers, students, and learning.  I’ve drawn on the work in that class nearly every day of my career in higher education.  The second, was What are Schools For?  This one explored the many ways that we construct the role of education in society.  As our expectations for a good society evolve, so do our expectations for education.  Though an Imperfect Panacea (Perkinson, 1977/1991),  thinking about education as the path to a good society guides my thinking as an administrator.

This morning I’m thinking about just one step on that path. It is not about technology or innovation or pedagogy.  I’m not wondering about the connection between career and philosophy (though I frequently do).  Today’s answer to the question of the purpose of schools is simply this: schools are for helping us understand that our certainties and assumptions may not be the same as those of our neighbors.

This is not a small thing.  Indeed this openness to differences in attitudes, beliefs and values is hard won, and never done. The conflicts are written in our histories — segregation, prayer in schools, gender specific curricula, evolution, and climate change — and will never be completed. As neighborhoods shift, new cultures emerge and we struggle.  As science advances, new facts emerge, and we struggle.  As technologies connect us to far flung places, we encounter new governments or foods or religions, and we struggle.

As a child, I was very aware of the differences in beliefs in my family as compared to my friends.  We were different in terms of religion (really, the lack of religion).  We were different in terms of gender roles (my mother re-married several times, she was the head of the household at all times).  We were different in our understanding of bias (participation in civil rights marches and anti-war marches was a regular feature of my upbringing). It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was different. It also didn’t take me long to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between my family’s values and those of my friends. It didn’t always go well, but my nature seems to be to try to find some common ground.

As a parent, I saw this again for my children. I found it a bit awkward that Halloween celebrations had to be hidden in a Harvest Fair (out of consideration for religious differences), but I could go with it.  Then there was the DARE program that I objected to (I just kept my kids home on those days). But there was one incident that shook me and it continues to shape my thoughts about education today.

Like me, my children were raised to make their own decisions about religion. We embraced some of the festivities of Christianity and Judaism, while also connecting them to the histories in which they arose.  Practically speaking, that meant latkes for Hanukkah, presents for Christmas, a bonfire for winter solstice, and an Easter egg hunt with our neighbors.  One year, as we prepared the latkes, a friend of one of my children came to visit.  She was discussing the birth of Jesus and pending family celebrations.  I don’t remember what she said, but I felt the need to add the qualifier, “for those who celebrate Christmas.”  The little girl was horrified.  She came straight out and said, “You mean, you hate Jesus?”  Oh boy. She didn’t come back to our house for about 8 years.

Of course, I had shaken her understanding of the world.  Not only did she not know that there were non-Christians, she didn’t know there were non-Catholics. Yet, she went to a school with children of other faiths.  Unfortunately, our schools have been avoiding these conversations. Religion, in particular, is not in the curriculum and might inspire controversy so it is avoided.

This may also be happening more than we realize in higher education.  If we’re doing education right, all of us should have those overwhelming moments when we realize that what we thought everyone believed just isn’t so. And then we should dig in. Because unlike that little girl, we are adults and walking away for 8 years just isn’t a reasonable response. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we should be embracing the rich conversations and the deep soul searching that can arise from those moments when our set of facts falls apart. I fear that opposite is true. I think we might be avoiding most of these conversations.

This feels urgent to me today. With Easter bombings in Sri Lanka and Passover shootings in California, it seems the need to give our students the tools for the rich conversations about our differences is the most important thing we can do. Our media environments have reduced all dialogue to shouting and our political system seems to have cut out all paths to solutions in favor of election strategies and litmus tests.  In the midst of all the shouting, we find tales of protests on campuses that shut down rather than foster dialogue. We can’t let this go on.

Schools are one of the only places where we have the opportunity to cut through the shouting and actually talk about our differences.  They offer us the opportunity to make sense of the fact that we are not all the same. Schools should be places where we are comfortable discussing what is making us uncomfortable, and not for entertainment value, but for understanding. Rather than avoiding tough conversations, we need to seek them out and take hard looks at the reasons they are tough. This is what schools are for.  This is our most important role in society right now and we need to take it on rigorously and enthusiastically.

 

 

 

 

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

The Biases Within: Getting our House in Order

Over my morning coffee I read the disturbing account of yet another incident in the long list of incidents where our students of color are targeted.  The Inside Higher Ed account, Entering Campus Building While Black,  includes troubling video footage and a list of similar events on other campuses over the last year.  In every case, those involved felt they were just being vigilant, just following usual protocols, yet these events rarely (never) seem to happen to our white students. It’s time for a little self-reflection folks.

The cascade of stereotypes that provoke these incidents are pervasive and exhausting.  Our words may speak to inclusion, but our deeply held experiences of “other” are driving our behaviors.  When we add the variable of gun violence in education contexts, it gets even worse.  We see something/say something, but we don’t seem to see whom we’re saying something about. In recent years, large bodies of research have shown us that our incarceration practices are littered with racists assumptions and practices, and I’m grateful that we are starting to see some real reforms.  It’s time to turn that attention to our own practices.

I’m not going to sugar coat this folks, here’s the deal.

Elite campuses are more likely to end up in this awful harassment cycle because the numbers of students of color are small.  Admissions practices, unequal access to quality K-12 education, and plain old money makes this so. When numbers are small, people notice the otherness of the non-white student more intensely.  They appear out-of-place (largely because we’ve not really made a place for them) and then they become the focus when we enforce our rules related to safety and security.  It becomes a series of natural seeming steps, that reinforce our biased assumptions and practices.

But elite campuses are not alone.  Even on more diverse campuses like mine, there are other kinds of targeting that routinely occur.  Our Muslim students are called upon to explain Islam. Our African-American students are asked to explain racism.  Our LGTBQ students must share their coming out stories. Our women are frequently asked to adjust to environments that are distinctly male. In our attempts to be inclusive, we end up creating uncomfortable situations where students are asked to be representatives of that “other” culture, asking them to speak for the whole.

Our faculty are not yet diverse enough and so those who are from backgrounds other than white and middle class are faced with the same burden that our students of color face.  They become the representatives of their cultures, while at the same time serving as a refuge for students of color, who seek mentors who understand their experiences. As these faculty try to juggle the ordinary burdens of teaching, publishing, and earning tenure, the extra responsibilities of being the representative of a specific group, puts a strain on their time, making the path to tenure more strenuous than that of their white peers. And by being put in the position of being the representative of their cultures, we continuously repeat the message, you are other.

And our curriculum, well don’t get me started on that. If all of the above represents tokenism (and it does), our curriculum is the epitome of that practice.  Somehow we think a few focused courses on particular groups are enough to address the long history of exclusion.  We congratulate ourselves for noticing an absence in our offerings, write a course to address it, and then go one with the usual approaches and subjects.

Yikes!

Clearly my encounter with the news this morning made me angry.  I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way.  We did not become educators to perpetuate the structural racism in our society.  Most of us just wanted to immerse ourselves in the fields we love and most of us thought when we did that, that systemic bias was not really part of that immersion. Unfortunately we were wrong.  Absolutely nothing we do is immune to the socio-cultural biases in which we operate.  Yes, even scientific inquiry has biases built-in, so, no exceptions here.

But I’m never one to stop with just observing a problem.  What are we to do? The list is incredibly long, but here are the first three steps we can take to get started.

  1. Don’t save meaningful encounters with diverse peoples for special occasions.  Let’s develop practices that weave real encounters with people and perspectives different from our own into the everyday life of the campus.  College is the ideal place to grow these habits.  We engage with people who are seeking new ideas and experiences by virtue of being here, so let’s redesign how we organize assignments, groups, spaces, and time so that these conversations are not the exception, but the rule.  Research suggests that just plain exposure can make a difference in our habit of stereotyping, so let’s orchestrate continuous exposure to all members of our community.
  2. Be much more thoughtful about curriculum.  Let’s not be fooled into believing that the stories and facts we have gathered represent the totality of the human experience.  Whose discoveries are we celebrating?  Whose histories are we exploring?  Which artists are we featuring?  We all know that the digital universe has given us ever more access to information and discoveries.  Our challenge is what to address right now.  If we just remember that the goal is to help our students figure out how to evaluate well and argue with information, then what we argue about is really not that important.  There is plenty of room in the curriculum to be more intentional about the diversity of narratives, discoveries, and social structures.  Rather than being fixated on the usual stories, let’s get obsessed with just how many stories we can tell.
  3. Think about the habits within our disciplines that may be excluding people.  Is the baseline knowledge for admission to your field something that everyone is likely to have encountered? If not, reconsider your baseline and build bridge programs where necessary.  Are the paths to graduate education clear enough that anyone could figure it out? If not (and no one should be answering yes to this), find ways to make the paths more transparent for all so that we might cultivate new voices and colleagues from many backgrounds.  Are the rules for academic success in your discipline (department) clearly articulated and supported? If not, make it so.  That’s not just for our students, that’s for all of our peers.  If we move from the informal to the formal articulation of the rules, we help level the playing field.

There is so much more to say and do, but I’m asking us to just start here. These things are within our control and they have the potential to transform our campus cultures. If we get serious about these three steps and take action, the next three steps will reveal themselves and we might be able to start cultivating the habits we need to truly transform our institutions.

I’m tired of waking up to these horrible news stories and I not satisfied with thinking this is someone else’s problem.  It’s time for us to get our house in order.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Graven Images

SUNY New Paltz recently announced that they will be changing the names of the buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex.  While the buildings were once named for celebrated founders of the region, their status as slave owners has come to the university’s attention.  After a lot of community conversation and input, the College Council voted to rename these buildings.  The history is no longer something the community can ignore.

I grew up in that neighborhood and went to school with descendants of the families associated with the Hasbrouck Complex. I’m sure that they never thought about, or perhaps even knew about, this part of their family history.  They were like me, just kids going to school comfortable in the knowledge that slave ownership was something that happened elsewhere in the country.  Those days are gone.  While the scale of slavery was different in the north, and many of our ancestors fought on the winning side of the Civil War, our history is in no way pure.  I applaud the bravery of SUNY New Paltz in their tackling of this issue.

This has me thinking about all of the name changes and statue removals that have been occurring as the details of our histories become visible to us. Our understanding of discrimination, in all of its forms, has expanded every decade of my life.  While it is true that there have been enlightened people throughout history who have pointed out our hypocrisies and hideous behavior as they emerged, for the many, identifying the beliefs that have supported our bigotries has taken time. We discover our blind spots, we battle over their meaning, and slowly we change.

In my children’s school district, there is a tradition of studying the monuments in Washington, D.C. and then traveling there to see them in person.  I was a chaperone  on this trip (twice). As I hopped on and off of our tour bus, watching excited children see their monument (each had reconstructed and reported on one of them), it never occurred to me to see those monuments as vulnerable to new understandings of history.  They represented the celebrated leaders and conflicts that underpin our sense of America.  I should have thought about it as we traveled to Mt. Vernon to observe the home of one of our early slave-owning presidents, but I didn’t.  We weren’t in this moment yet.

What I did observe was the small museum tucked away under the Lincoln Memorial.  I wouldn’t have found it, we were focused on the steps and statue above, but two of my charges needed a rest-room.  As we poked around downstairs, I discovered a room full of protest memorabilia.  There it was, the waves of our awakenings to patterns of discrimination.  Marches for African-Americans, Women, LGBTQ, and more are remembered in this small room.  These histories are the moments that mark our readiness for change.  Much more has needed to follow those marches, but they are a record of our move from the enlightened few to movements for change.

As we go through the conversations that precede or accompany the re-naming of buildings or the taking down of statues, there is a sense of loss and conflict.  Some argue that these changes erase history.  I don’t agree.  These changes make the history more visible.  They require us to look more closely at the stories we are telling, and those we are not. Questioning our decisions about who we honor makes us more open to fullness of our histories.

Then there is the other protest… when will it end?  Are we just going to keep taking down names as we discover the faults in our heroes?  Probably.  It is unlikely that anyone we celebrate will be thought heroic forever.  Perhaps we should try to get  our minds around that.  Embracing our fallibility could make us more open to making the changes we need to make.

So, I’m thinking  about the Second Commandment.  The prohibition against graven images is frequently interpreted as a ban on idolatry.  It seems a good caution in today’s context.  We select our heroes at our peril, knowing that they will be fallible and may not bear close scrutiny over time.  Maybe we should avoid these homages to perceived importance and greatness completely.

I don’t think so.  We like heroes and it is important to celebrate greatness, even if our definitions of greatness change over time.  Indeed, we have to make room for the  heroes that emerge as we change, making room for the new values and achievements they represent. But we are going to have to let go of the sense of permanence that accompanies our monuments.  They reflect a moment in time: they are not forever, no matter how massive our tribute.

As for the names of our buildings, I think we should consider the meaning of the word “graven” in the 2nd Commandment. It is frequently translated as etching, and that something that is difficult to erase.  Perhaps, in the spirit of our openness to change, we should stop the etching and move to plaques. They’re much more easily moved.

 

 

 

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Diversity in the Curriculum: What do students see?

Like many universities, WCSU has identified cultural understanding as an important core value.  We have indicated this in two of our values statements:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the  right of all people to be  treated  with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

We have also included Intercultural Competency in our general education requirements:

Intercultural competence is defined by the following general characteristics: (1) knowledge about cultures, including knowledge about issues that can arise when members of diverse cultures interact; (2) receptive attitudes to learning about and maintaining contact with diverse others; and (3) skills required to draw upon both knowledge and attitudes when learning about and/or interacting with others from diverse cultures.

These statements are great, but what are we doing about it? Do we foster understanding and dialogue enough to support these learning goals and values? In several of my earlier blogs I have asked questions about whether or not our curriculum is sufficiently diverse. Today, I’d like to focus on student input into this conversation.

Now, I’m guessing that most students have not spent much time thinking about our values statements.  They arise more from the vision of faculty, staff, and administration, than from our students, and they serve as a guide for how we should conduct ourselves.  All of our students should know that their general education curriculum requires a course in Intercultural Competency, but many of them may not think about looking at the entirety of their education through a cultural lens.

I think it is time we ask our students what they think about our curriculum, as it pertains to ongoing interactions with ideas from cultures other than their own. Here’s what I’d ask:

  1. How many of the classes required in your major include cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all relevant courses.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  2.  Have you taken courses outside of your major that included cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all you can remember.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  3. Thinking about the classes you’ve taken so far, how many of them included opportunities to discuss cultural perspectives different from your own? List all you can think of.
  4. How were those discussions approached? Check all that apply.
    • Debates
    • Presentations
    • Small group discussions
    • Part of routine class discussion
    • Other (please describe)
  5. If you were to look for a course that included discussions of cultures different from your own, how would you go about finding that course? Beyond the IC label, are there specific words that indicate a cultural perspective different from your own?
  6. Looking at all of your responses above, do you think there are sufficient opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own in the WCSU curriculum?  Please explain your answer.
  7. Are there ways that WCSU could improve on the opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own?

This survey could form a baseline read on our success at living up to curricular goals and university values.  It might help us create better titles and course descriptions.  It might reveal that there are gaps in our offerings.  It might also give us some insights into what students are perceiving even before the register for a course.  The question of the impact of these experiences should come later.  First, we have to understand what our students are seeing in the curriculum.

You may notice that I haven’t asked if students want to learn about cultural perspectives different from their own.  Given the diversity on our campus, the diversity in the workplace that students will experience after graduation, and the questions of cultural perspectives that arise within the political landscape both locally and nationally, I’m willing to commit to the need for this kind of education.  I’m just not sure we are achieving the levels of exposure and engagement with cultural perspectives that we are hoping for.

There is one more thing that I should consider asking about though.  I haven’t included a question about the cultural group the respondent identifies with.  I probably should at the very end.  I don’t want it to shape the responses, but it may be very telling in terms of their perceptions of our curriculum. We have a wonderfully diverse student body at WCSU, and that question might be really important to the interpretation of the results.  So, I’m thinking about it.

What I do know is that I must provide a definition of a “culture different from your own.” That will be a project in inclusiveness, but I’m ready to take it on.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

From Tolerance to Understanding

It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus.  Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today.  Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure.  It makes way for reflection and reinvention.

As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society.  I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives.  I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come.  At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?

This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it.  Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here.  That is a position I have always embraced.  But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.

When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.”  In its moment, that word was progressive.  It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.

But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance.  There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence.  This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.

So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough.  Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs.  We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude.  But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.

At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions.  There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them.  We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them.  Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion.  The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.

So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education.  At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work.  These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more.  Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.

Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.

It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly.  But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation.  We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true.  We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions.  Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring.  And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.

Peace to you all.