Educational Conference Inspires Realizations and Revelations

During the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to speak at two major education conferences – one focused on higher education and the other on state school leadership. These experiences served as a reminder of the difficulties that the education community faces when trying to communicate with conservatives.

Let me provide some context. At the higher education conference, I was asked to join a panel discussion on the current landscape of higher ed, which was mainly composed of conference honorees. The state school leadership gathering invited Pedro Noguera and myself to discuss our book In Search of Common Ground.

However, I left both events feeling frustrated. What exactly bothered me? Keep reading to find out.

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First off, it was somewhat odd that, as someone tasked with modeling respectful discourse between conservatives and liberals, I was subjected to almost half an hour of politicized progressive rhetoric at the beginning of each session.

At the higher education conference, the opening remarks encouraged everyone to unite against right-wing individuals who allegedly despise higher education and aim to undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. They even brought up the congressional hearing on December 5, where the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and UPenn were accused of hypocrisy. However, instead of presenting it as an embarrassment for higher ed, the incident was used as evidence of the right’s malicious agenda. This ironic prelude hardly set the stage for a session focused on understanding the crisis of public confidence in higher education.

Similarly, at the state gathering, the state chief turned a scheduled three-minute introduction into a 20-minute campaign-style speech. He dismissed parental concerns about schools not involving them in their children’s gender identity decisions as “anti-LGBT+ bigotry”. Parents expressing opposition to potentially explicit materials in elementary school libraries were brushed off as engaging in “right-wing book banning.” The state chief failed to address chronic absenteeism, chaotic classrooms, or poor student achievement, but boasted about increased spending. As a result of the extended warm-ups, our 60-minute session was shortened to a brisk 26 minutes. If I were part of the in-group, I might have laughed it off, but as an outsider, it sent a clear, albeit unintended message.

At both conferences, I felt more like I was attending a local Democratic Party gathering rather than a diverse education event. There was not even a token effort made to include right-leaning perspectives or rhetoric. The organizers claimed to have conservative attendees, and they expressed a desire to make them feel valued and heard, emphasizing their mission to navigate the challenges of polarized times. However, the opening remarks seemed wholly political and biased. It would be like me, as a host, starting a common-ground dinner by asking a Trump supporter to deliver a 15- or 20-minute right-wing speech.

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Keep in mind that all of this was just the prelude to sessions where I was specifically brought in to encourage thoughtful engagement across ideological divides. However, due to the lengthy criticism directed at my views and values, I found myself less inclined towards genuine engagement than I had hoped. And that is the crux of the issue.

Perhaps there were no conservatives in the room, or if there were, they may have felt too intimidated to speak up. Either way, the prevailing groupthink was stifling. I can only imagine how it must be for other right-wing speakers who are not given the opportunity to take the stage. All of this does not foster an environment conducive to helping educators navigate and bridge these divides with genuine goodwill.

As I often tell my young colleagues, talk is cheap. It is our actions that truly matter. Our actions demonstrate what we value. And these events served as a reminder of three key observations I have made. First, while many in education claim to want engagement across difference, I am not convinced that they truly mean it. Second, groupthink has taken root so deeply in K-12 and higher education that many within those circles fail to recognize it. Third, even small gestures can make a difference in building bridges and establishing trust with those outside our immediate sphere.

I do not know if those within ideological bubbles have the capacity or willingness to acknowledge these issues. However, I hope that they will eventually realize that they are only speaking to one side of the nation, at best.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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