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Photo by Emily Shahrzad Rahravan, Indonesia Semester.

Diversity and Dialogue

Femke, your Yak post touched on so much of what I believe, wonder, and hope to unearth for my students. To echo your thoughts about the burden on us as educators to cultivate certain dispositions in our students, I am reminded of a NYT op-ed from last year about the dying art of disagreement and how essential (and inherently uncomfortable, difficult, and fraught) it is to practice respectful disagreement:

In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.

Teaching diversity to privileged 13 and 14-year-old boys is such a thorny endeavor. Their default setting is to turn everything into a debate, which is lazy because it’s easy. They already know what they want to say and where they stand. There’s no reflection, curiosity, or even listening. I work all year to loosen that default setting by introducing the notion of “dialogue,” which is less clean, has no specific end goal, and is process oriented. At its best, dialogue also fosters empathy and comfort with ambiguity, which is a foot in the door when instances of intolerance come up. We spend a LOT of time asking questions, opening the lens of inquiry wider, and remaining in that space of curiosity. Asking good questions is a prerequisite for any of the mental dispositions we want our students to develop. Of course, there are days when I worry that I’m not getting through to them, especially when I see them acting ruthlessly unkind to one another immediately after they’ve exhibited what looked like empathy and genuine interest in other people / perspectives in class (seriously, it often happens just after they walk out my door and into the hallway. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde). But when my frustration and hopelessness reach a breaking point, I double down on the practice of asking questions. It disarms their tendency to argue or become closed minded.

My students just finished their social studies final exam, which comprised a series of articles, political cartoons, and photographs that they’d never seen but needed to interact with in writing. Instead of grading their short term memory capacity with content that requires nothing more than rote memorization, I grade their ability to ask interpretive questions, make connections to their own lives, and wade through the often messy process of perspective-taking. As teachers, we are uniquely positioned to drop students into that space of exposure to profound difference and honest connection. I sense that my students crave such candid exploration, even if they don’t consciously realize it or name it as such. Based on the stack I’ve graded so far, I have renewed faith that they’re capable of seeing others, engaging with different views, and inviting uncertainty into their lives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed the following sentiment during a live event in Chicago recently, and it resonated with me. A middle school teacher asked Coates how she should go about inspiring hope in her students when hope is in such short supply during these times of intolerance. He began by unequivocally rejecting the premise of the question and then said:

I don’t think at that age I was looking for hope from my teachers…I think I was looking for exposure. I think I wanted to see other things about the world. I think I wanted to be exposed to different worldviews. If I were a kid right now, I guess I would want to understand, why did they kill Eric Garner? Why is that OK? I don’t need you to make me feel good about that, but I need to know what happened. People deeply underestimate the freedom that comes from understanding. I probably would not even want the answers: Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That probably would be more important to me. That’s not hope. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from at that age.

Simultaneously disagreeing with or being made uncomfortable by someone else’s perspective and remaining completely curious, willing to be surprised, inviting ambiguity – it’s a fundamentally generous act. I wouldn’t call it easy, but if any disposition is worth cultivating, that’s probably it. I want to be surprised on our course in Indonesia. I want my own sense of the world to be challenged and re-calibrated. I want to add to my arsenal of questions.