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Question the Dominant Frames

Selected by the Class of 2019 as Faculty Convocation Speaker, Hehir reflected on his experiences and cautioned students about the need to remain alert to the presence of discrimination and oppression in the world.

Professor Tom Hehir's prepared remarks:

Greeting class of 2019!

Thank you for this honor of being your convocation faculty speaker.

As educators one of things we desire most is for our students to remember us, positively of course.

We all have memories of teachers who have had a lasting impact on our lives.

Margaret Mead once said, “Children must be taught how to think not what to think.” That’s how I would describe the teachers who had a lasting impact on me.

In looking back at my life I have been fortunate to have many fine teachers, in the Worcester Public Schools where I grew up. You have to be from Worcester to pronounce it correctly. I also had many fine teachers at Holy Cross College, Syracuse University, and Harvard who impacted my life.

However, one teacher who stood out for me, I never had in class. He was my uncle, a Jesuit priest and educator.

When I was a teenager he cautioned me to always be skeptical of the dominant frames by which society addresses its perceived problems, that dominant frames can hide oppression and inequality.

He related how when he was in the seminary in the late '30s he could recall only one discussion he had concerning African Americans and that centered around how they as priests should convert more African Americans to Catholicism.

He told me that was the wrong frame. He decried the lack of attention to racism, discrimination, and Jim Crow. He related how in some parts of the country African Americans had to receive communion after Whites. He was appalled. From his perspective they were missing the more important issue, the need to confront racism in both society and the church.

His lessons about how we frame issues and being open to questioning those frames have stayed with me.

As a young special educator being prepared to teach children with disabilities, one of the dominant themes espoused by many in my field was the theory of normalization. Using this frame, we were taught that our role as special educators was to enable students with disabilities to fit in, to be as normal as possible. That meant deaf students were often discouraged from signing and forced into hours of therapy to learn to read lips and speak, many never accomplishing either while being denied access to natural language, sign language. Students who were physically disabled spent hours learning to take a few steps, often being pulled out of academic classes to do so. Dyslexic students were subjected to endless drills in phonics and spelling while being denied access to great literature. Over time I have realized that this was the wrong frame.

When I was mid career, I had the honor of being appointed by President Clinton to head up the office of Special Education Programs. In that role I worked with other appointees who headed up disability programs throughout the government. There were about 20 of us and I was the only one who did not have a disability. When we met monthly to talk about our programs and policy impacting the disability community, the email invitation read disabled appointees plus Tom. They were inclusive.

Though I had worked in special education my entire career, I never was in position where I, a temporarily able-bodied person, a TAB, as many is the disability community refer to nondisabled people, was working primarily with people who had disabilities. Now that I am older I know how temporary my able-bodiness was.

This was a great boundary-crossing opportunity for me.

I recall a meeting we had in 1994 in which I brought up a policy issue, the fact that students with disabilities were mostly excluded for state and federal testing programs. As a country we could not answer the question whether students with disabilities were learning to read or whether they were proficient in mathematics. I thought of this purely as a policy issue. They had a different frame.

My boss, the noted disability activist Judy Heumann, responded, “Don’t you get it Tom.” “It’s ableism! They (meaning people without disabilities) don’t believe we, people with disabilities are capable.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement. I had never heard the term but quickly figured out. Like racism, sexism, and homophobia it’s deeply held negative views of people based on group membership, attitudes that discriminate and oppress.

This was an epiphany for me. It changed my frame. I saw how many of the practices that I, and others in my field, engaged in actually perpetuated ableism. Though well meaning, we educators often focused on deficits and not strengths. Too often we ignored the unique gifts that students with disabilities brought with them because of their disabilities.

The frame of ableism was a direct challenge to the frame of normalization that dominated my field. It became clear to me that we, as educators, needed to confront ableism just as we need to confront racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. We needed to embrace students with disabilities for who they were and move toward a world in which people with disabilities are respected and embraced.

Recently I came into procession of a trove of letters my uncle wrote to my mother and others in my family. As I read these letters that spanned five decades I could see how my uncle changed his frames throughout his career. As a young seminarian in India in the late'30s he thought his career would be converting Muslims and Hindus to Christianity. He enthusiastically accepted this call.

However, as his career evolved, it became clear his frames had changed. He founded a high school and university in Bagdad, Iraq, Al-Hikma University. The school enrolled not only Christians of several denominations, but also Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, and Jews. And, in a radical move for its time and place, enrolled women. His letters never talked about conversion but rather he spoke of the beauty of Islam.

Another letter concerned a boat trip he took from Europe shortly after World War II. Holocaust survivors heading to Israel mostly populated the ship. My uncle marveled at the faithfulness of the Jews on the ship as they observed Shabbat given all they had been through. He spoke of his deep respect for Judaism and the Jewish people.

As I researched his school more, it was evident that my missionary uncle did not seem interested in converting anyone. None other than the powerful Cardinal of Boston, Cardinal Cushing, publically criticized the Jesuits in Iraq for failing to convert a single person, calling their vocations wasted.

However, another article I found, written by a Muslim, part of the Iraqi diaspora in the U.S., provided a counter narrative. He spoke glowingly of the school, remembering how transformative it was to be educated along side Christians and Jews. He stated that for him this was America.

Saddam Hussein closed the school in 1968 expelling the American Jesuits. Clearly their frame of acceptance of difference conflicted with his political philosophy of pitting one group against another, as fascists typically do. However, the example of  Al-Hikma University, of school being a place where difference is acknowledged and celebrated, where boundaries were crossed for the betterment of all, is as relevant today as it was in the '50s and '60s. It was, and is, the right frame.

So class of 2019, be the educator your students remember by teaching them how to think, not what to think. Be the educator who recognizes the power of education to cross boundaries. Be the educator willing to question the dominant frames of our times as you promote equity and inclusion, creating a better world for us all.

Thank you.