The Necessity of Civility
Thinking out loud online carries risks. Especially when exploring topics about which one is passionate, it's easy to fall into hyperbole, dogmatic thinking, and the Manichean drawing of sides. I know that I've fallen into these traps before (despite my best efforts to resist them), which is why I now want to reflect on a recent point raised by Rick Hess about opening up to viewpoints with which one disagrees.
For Hess, a good example is a recent forum and public discussion hosted by the Obama administration. The event gave Hess – a frequent critic of administration education policy – and his co-author a chance to present arguments made in their new book. By all accounts, discussion was allowed to proceed with positive contributions from the various “sides” involved. Specifics aside, it's the principle of open conversation with ideological opponents that gets lost in our increasingly intense debates about education policy.
For those of us who are interested in finding the most effective policies to address the particular causes of the achievement gap, an open mind is essential. This is difficult when one also identifies, as I do, with a particular end of the political spectrum. While I have no intention of playing some sort of namby-pamby, find-the-middle-ground game with all of this, I also have to recognize that my particular political leanings mean that I will unconsciously over-rate the hypothetical effectiveness of some policies and under-rate the hypothetical effectiveness of others.
Total dispassion about such matters is not possible for most people. Rather than seek to develop such dispassion in everyone, it makes more sense to advance the discussion by encouraging a fair exchange of ideas. In honest attempts to find resolution, our unconscious biases may eventually cancel each other out. At the very least, working through the issues with an open-minded person who has a different set of biases should help us spot the most glaring errors of our own biases.
One need only look to the dysfunction of our current politics to see the dangers of epistemic closure and an unwillingness to hear the other side. Excessive partisanship has eroded the norms of our government, with the result that little of worth can get done. The quest for political dominance above all else undermines our ability to get things done, and we can only hope that the “new normal” of violent inaction is temporary.
Again, I'm not arguing for us to simply seek middle ground for the sake of middle ground. Rather, I am saying that finding effective policies for education reform requires us to listen to one another and respond meaningfully to each other's thoughts and concerns. It requires us to assume that the people who disagree with us are still nobly motivated (until clearly demonstrated otherwise).
This applies not just to the opinion-mongers, but also to the think tanks, advocacy organizations, unions, and politicians. We could all use a little more respect and a little less rhetoric.
Let's take a look at a few examples of things we know that could serve as a common base for seeking good education policy:
- The “achievement gap” is composed of several smaller gaps connected to particular effects of income and race.
- Effectively addressing early childhood needs can close much of the achievement gap before it's too entrenched.
- Finding effective (and cost-effective) ways to beat summer learning loss is one of the most promising available options for closing the gap.
- We need to find ways to stabilize new teachers, allowing them to become successful veterans.
- At the same time, we need to be careful not to lose our effective veteran teachers.
These give us clear, well-defined problems to attempt to address. They allow us, at least to some extent, to define desired outcomes and track progress towards those outcomes. They also do not require a particular ideological bent to consider or address.
Rick Hess is a conservative and a frequent critic of Obama administration policies. However, his criticisms are generally not grounded in trying to help Team Red beat Team Blue. Rather, he is genuinely interested in trying to address the kind of problems identified above. Giving him a fair hearing is different from, say, preemptively compromising in the face of legislative bullies. We need more fair hearings and fewer bullies, and progressives are going to need to be the people who find a way to balance ideology with effective policymaking.