Last month, I attended a heads of school meeting at a national conference in Baltimore. Around the table sat school leaders from almost every state. When the conversation turned to how national political events are affecting our schools, I was struck by how many schools are struggling to stand up for their school values in response to incidents of prejudice, and be places where diverse points of view and voices are truly valued.
It is hard to tell these days whether the divisive national mood is a cause or effect of our tendency not to seek, hear, and value other points of view. In the academy, conservatives have long argued that liberal groupthink dominates academic and social discourse, and that being inclusive does not extend to valuing their points of view. Author and professor Bill Deresiewicz agrees, arguing that most selective private institutions “suppress expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas” and promote a “dogma of “correct” opinions and beliefs” (“On Political Correctness,” American Scholar, Spring 2017). Former provost John Echtemendy of Stanford believes that politicization and intellectual intolerance are a greater threat to the University than any external danger (“The Threat from Within,” Stanford Magazine, Feb. 2017). Fred Bauer writes that it is not just politicians in Washington who lack the skills to exchange divergent views with “modesty, curiosity, and tolerance” (“Middlebury Students Need to Give Up Their 'Discriminatory Tolerance',” National Review, March 11, 2017). We have work to do in the schoolhouse as well.
As an educational institution in a politically and socially divisive time, I think it is critically important that we ask ourselves hard questions and identify constructive steps we can take. How do our values inform how we educate for independent and critical thinking? How do each of us interpret the school’s commitment to community, diversity, and integrity? Are we a community in which all voices are truly welcome and heard? How do we respond to views we find to be disagreeable or different? I see a variety of steps we can take here at Catlin Gabel to answer these questions in a constructive way:
- Seek to know if all students and adults in our community feel safe, known, and valued and take steps to address it if they do not.
- Align our curriculum and institutional behaviors with our values and our mission to provide “inspired learning leading to responsible action.”
- Teach and practice the skills of listening for understanding and conflict resolution, and seek out ideas and opinions that differ from ours.
- Be more intentional about what it means to be a progressive school that “educates for democracy.” What are the skills for citizenship in a pluralistic democracy, and how can students learn and practice them as they move up through the grades?
- Reflect as professional educators on how and how well we are creating inclusive rational discourse in our classrooms and school activities. Are all voices valued and respected by fellow students and by us? Are opinions evidence-based? How is our voice perceived by students?
- Students can engage in the many opportunities on campus to learn about diverse perspectives and life experiences through initiatives such as affinity groups, SAFE, Ujima, and Diversity Squad; and adults can engage in PFA-sponsored activities such as IONS, Book Club, and Heritage Day (read more).
- Students can seek diverse experiences off-campus through community engagement, class trips, PLACE, Startup Camp, Robotics, Global Online Academy, and other activities (read more).
- Create more opportunities like the recently launched urban-rural student exchange program, in which Catlin Gabel students attended public schools and experienced homestays in southern Oregon.
- Support national initiatives such as “unbubble,” which invite citizens from different walks of life across the country to connect online, burst their personal bubbles, and have serious conversations about the future of our country.
As we seek to navigate complicated times, we need to be clear about our school’s values and stand up for them when they are violated. We also need to pursue Deresiewicz’s ideal of schools being places of “free, frank, and fearless inquiry… [where we] …inquire into fundamental human questions and seek answers through rational discourse.” Achieving this across fourteen grades is a more complicated task than in the narrower scope of a college setting, but also more important. Our goal should be free speech and free thinking, governed by respect and responsibility to others. We need to remember that silent voices have nothing to teach, and believing we know the truth eliminates the need to seek it.