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Askwith Education Forum

Askwith Education Forum Tackles Polarization in Education

HGSE panel offered advice for educators in divided times

The ways in which a polarized political landscape affects educators and students was the focus of the latest Askwith Education Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  

“K-12 Education in Polarized Times,” moderated by Senior Lecturer Irvin Scott, featured a panel of HGSE faculty members – Professors Meira Levinson and Paul Reville, and Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham — discussing how educators can engage students and families in productive ways during divisive times.

Scott opened the conversation by outlining the challenges educators face in improving student outcomes amid a complex social and political landscape.

“None of this work is ever isolated from the social-political dynamics that surround schools,” said Scott. “What we do as educators is always going to be connected to, responding to, and leading through the climate and dynamics around us. There’s no way to get away from that.”

Levinson offered historical context to the current educational landscape’s challenges, noting that current battles over book bans, parental choice, and student rights are just “one moment among many” in a long line of often violent clashes between different groups.

“This is part of a history of what can become deadly contestation over who we teach, what we teach, and how we teach,” said Levinson, who stressed the difference between polarization of political parties and extremism in dialogue and actions.

Askwith Forum K-12 in Polarized Times
Panelists for "K-12 Education in Polarized Times," l-r: Senior Lecturer Irvin Scott, Professor Meira Levinson, Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham, and Professor Paul Reville
Photo: Jill Anderson

Reville stressed the opportunity educators have in a moment of change to rethink the ways in which schooling works and how it fits into civil society.

“We need … to stretch our rules as educators to connect people to one another in ways that we haven’t done before, and to create structures and frameworks and challenges for our students that enable them to see the world in different points of view,” he said.

Reville offered hope that progress can be made on a local level, where people know each other and can put aside their differences to work together to find common ground in their communities, even if the national discourse remains divided.

Educators are often the most trusted leaders in a given place, said Cheatham, and “need to be a light in the storm” for their communities because distractions can cost vital time for students.

“If we can’t figure out how to work better across lines of difference, that work [of educators] will be derailed,” she said. “There’s a lot of risk right now.”

The panelists expressed optimism about education’s role in helping bridge divides between people, noting that education remains, as Levinson said, “the tool through which we envision and construct a better future.”  

“What we’re grappling with is what ‘better’ is, and how we also can construct that better future at a time in which we are facing so many profound challenges and divisions,” said Levinson.

You can watch the full Askwith Education Forum above. 

Askwith Education Forum

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