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.