I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to put 2017 in the rearview mirror. It was a year that seemed to bring out the worst in so many. It infused partisan politics into daily life in unhealthy ways. It colored discussions that are usually far removed from national politics. It expanded the sphere of the political, and made it hard to find reasoned middle ground.
I know not everybody sees it the way I do. I know some people are jazzed by the new politics. I know Trump loyalists who’ve been delighted by the chaos their man has wrought and by the chance to channel their bitterness. I know lefties who’ve been thrilled to unleash their rage, and by the hyperbole and kinetic insanity that have marked their “RESISTANCE!” In education, of course, outspoken Trumpers were few and far between, which seemed only to add to the self-regard, certainty, and bombast of the resistance crowd.
More than a few folks, for reasons which escape me, seem to think the politicization of daily life is a healthy thing and not a recipe for divisive, destructive strife. Some of these are the same people who have made once-esoteric educational questions—like school discipline, collegiate Title IX policies governing due process, school choice, teacher evaluation, and determination of testing subgroups—into hero’s journeys defined by bitter battles between those fighting “for the kids” (their side) and the forces of malice (the other side).
Anyway, I’m not really sure what one does about any of this—especially given that most people think the problem is the other side’s evil intentions, and thus feel justified in whatever norm-shattering, institution-torching nastiness their side engages in. Meeting bombast with bombast doesn’t help with that, and there’s not a lot of appetite nowadays for measured takes. Indeed, the more measured the take, the less likely I’ve found it is to be read, or discussed. It’s all left me at a bit of a loss. And, unlike my anti-Trump friends, I see no reason to think that electing Democratic politicians next fall will turn down the dial on the vitriol or polarization.
This all seems especially relevant to the stuff I think and write about every day, because education has been infected by many of the same dynamics that have corroded our politics. Not having any grand solutions to offer, I guess I’m going to have to settle for doing the little things that each of us can do. As I observed last year, in the conclusion of Letters to a Young Education Reformer:
I’ve been struck by the growing fascination with PR campaigns and political strategies. There’s a place for both substance and messaging, of course, but I’ve seen attention to political tactics come at the expense of deliberation and honest self-appraisal. Eager to draw attention and show funders an “impact,” reformers have found it ever easier to get caught up in the thrill of the hunt. This makes me think that it’s a good time to be more deliberate. To speak and write more selectively. To be more discerning about the gatherings we host and attend. We’re swimming in noise. There’s a yawning need for reflection and a willingness to listen to one another. It’s tough to listen, though, if we’re constantly chattering, and it’s even tougher if we’re shouting.
In 2018, I resolve to speak my mind while recognizing that plenty of smart, thoughtful, informed people are inevitably going to see things differently. I’ll do my best to resist groupthink, fads of the moment, and the temptation to suck up to funders; to avoid reflexively cheering my friends or imputing malice to those with whom I disagree; and to speak my truth as I see it. I’m sure I’ll fall short plenty of times, so feel free to help hold me to it. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, and prosperous year.
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.