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Schools and Citizenship

An interview with Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan about equity, empathy, and citizenship — and the role schools play
James Ryan

In divisive times, the work of teachers and school leaders grows ever more challenging. What happens at home, in the media, and in the political sphere makes its way into schools, affecting policies, classroom conversations, and relationships among students and staff. This spring, faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been working on projects to support educators and students — strategies to build empathy, encourage conversation across difficult topics, and protect vulnerable students. They’re sharing examples of this work — extending a community conversation about equity in education — on One and All, a website that responds to the current climate of uncertainty in the country. We asked Dean James Ryan to talk about the project and about the role of schools today.

Despite (or maybe because of) the polarization of our politics, we’re seeing a growing recognition of the value of connecting with people whose experiences and views are different from our own. What is the role of educators in this conversation about diversity and inclusiveness, in your view?

I think educators have long recognized that embracing and cultivating diversity across a range of identities, experiences, and beliefs is a necessary starting point. As a teaching and learning community at the Harvard Ed School, we’ve tried to push past that recognition and to think concretely about actually how to fulfill the promise of diversity in our schools, our organizations, and our society. Fulfilling that promise means looking beyond the mere fact of diversity and creating the conditions for equity, belonging, and thriving.

The Ed School started this work in 2014, with a series of workshops, seminars, new courses, and a common reading project that explored those questions. The following year, we used a four-part “arc of learning” to better guide the activities, and we expanded or deepened our offerings and changed our student orientation and the professional development we offered to our faculty and staff.  

This year, we decided to focus the conversation on two issues that are especially important to education: racial equity and viewpoint diversity. We made this decision well before the presidential election, but the election has created opportune moments to examine both issues.

Educators have a responsibility to work toward a society in which age, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any of the other characteristics that make up our identity, cease to be seen as problems and instead are recognized as sources of strength.

Injustices on the basis of race and ethnicity — both overt and subtle — have their origins in our nation’s history and continue to undermine efforts at guaranteeing opportunity for all. At the same time, education has great potential to combat and reduce racism in society. As educators, there are actions we can take to create more racially equitable institutions. 

As for viewpoint diversity, which I refer to as “learning through disagreement”: I believe we can and should do more to prepare our students — and ourselves as faculty and staff — to have meaningful and respectful conversations about education policy and practice across intellectual and political differences. No matter what positions we advocate for individually and collectively, we will benefit from experiencing and practicing discussion across intellectual and ideological divides. 

You launched a project this year, called One and All, that takes some of these themes and explores them in a conversation with practitioners, with the broad aim of protecting students from bullying and harassment. Tell us how that came to be.

After the election, which surprised a lot of people, I heard from faculty and students about some general desire to do something, but no one was quite clear about what to do. Like everyone, I was reading news reports about incidents of harassment and discrimination at schools. It wasn’t clear to me whether this represented a significant increase in those incidents, or whether it just represented the fact that they were getting more attention. But either way, the problem is real, and it’s been around for a long time, and the election highlighted it and I think in some respects exacerbated it.

I thought that one thing the Ed School could do is connect with educators who are struggling with these issues on a daily basis. I thought we had something to offer, given the range of faculty expertise here. But I also thought we had something to learn, which is why from the very beginning I wanted this to be a two-way conversation. So it’s not that we’re in Cambridge sitting back and telling everyone else how they should deal with bullying and discrimination, but instead we are hearing and learning from stories of what’s happening in classrooms and schools, and collecting good ideas that we could then share with others in a way that is of practical use.

So we created a multimedia website that offers resources and strategies for protecting students who are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment. The stories and videos on the site also look at ways to create a learning climate where all viewpoints are respected and where the rights and dignity of every person are protected. Several of the videos explore ways that teachers can lead productive classroom conversations across controversial or challenging topics.  

Empathy is not just a fortunate byproduct of studying history or literature; in some ways, it’s the most important byproduct.

What is the role of K-12 education, broadly, in addressing these issues?

Schools have a big role to play in helping prepare students to become citizens who can live peacefully and productively with one another. One of the most important things schools can do is to help students develop a sense of understanding of, and empathy for, the lives of people who are different from them. In a homogenous classroom, it’s about developing empathy for people who are different from the students in that class. In a more diverse classroom, it’s about fostering appreciation of the diversity of experiences, thoughts, and beliefs within the classroom.

Empathy is a huge issue — really understanding and appreciating someone else’s experience and someone else’s perspective. In some respects, that’s why we study history, and that’s why we read literature. So schools are already doing this, but we could be much more intentional about it. There’s an opportunity to build on what schools are doing and recognize that empathy is not just a fortunate byproduct of studying history or literature; in some ways, it’s the most important byproduct. I think unless we start to appreciate and respect those people whose lives are very different from ours, the divisions are just going to continue. I don’t have a Pollyanna-ish view that we’re all going to agree on everything, but we should at least strive to be a little bit more understanding and a little less defensive and hostile.

Adults could learn those skills too.

It’s true; we have a lot to learn, as adults, when it comes to listening to those with whom we disagree. As with most things, there’s no substitute for practice. You have to encounter people with whom you disagree. You have to try to listen — really try to listen — to make sure you understand their point. And then you have to practice having a respectful conversation with them. 

We have a lot to learn, as adults, when it comes to listening to those with whom we disagree. As with most things, there’s no substitute for practice.

As educators, we have a responsibility to work toward a society in which age, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, or any of the other characteristics that make up our identity, cease to be seen as problems to be overcome and instead are recognized as sources of strength. We need more people with the skills and courage to lead the sometimes-difficult interactions that will be needed to make this hope a reality.

Both President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos have called education the civil rights issue of our era. What will it take to make real progress toward securing equal rights for all students?

John Dewey famously said that what the wisest and best parents want for their children, we should want for all children. At the end of the day, this is what it will take.

You’ve just written a book that offers five simple questions that can help us sustain a meaningful life. One of the questions you explore is “Couldn’t we at least?” It’s a fragment that seems to open a road to compromise, to building a bridge over disagreements. How might that question be relevant to this conversation?

That question is about seeking common ground and some consensus, even if it’s about basic principles. So, in education, we might ask: “Couldn’t we at least agree that all kids should have what they need to come to school every day ready to learn?” We might not all agree on exactly what kids need or who should supply it, but we should be able to agree on the basic principle. Agreeing on basic principles like these offers a route to productive debates about how to satisfy those basic principles, and it can start a conversation that is about solving problems, not about emphasizing disagreements or picking sides.

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