The Education Conference as Epiphany

For all the platitudes of “reaching across the aisle,” the rooms often feel one-sided

Conference attendees applauding

Over the past few weeks, I did a couple plenary sessions at big education conferences (a higher ed gathering and a convening of state school leaders). I came away reminded why it feels like the education community has so much trouble talking to red America.

A bit of context: For the higher ed thing, a friend cajoled me into joining the kick-off panel, which was otherwise comprised of conference honorees. The topic was the current landscape of higher ed, and I was recruited when they realized the panelists were mostly in agreement on the issues of the day. As for the state gathering, they’d asked Pedro Noguera and me to discuss our book In Search of Common Ground.

Anyway, I came away frustrated as hell. So, what got me so grouchy?

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For starters, given that I was asked (in both cases) to model respectful discourse across the right-left divide, I found it odd that each session began with me forced to sit through close to half an hour of politicized progressive cant.

The higher ed thing started with encouragement to stand together against those narrow-minded right-wingers who mindlessly hate higher education and want to gut DEI. The December 5 congressional hearing in which the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and UPenn showed themselves to be lawyered-up hypocrites was mentioned, but not as an embarrassment for higher ed. Rather, it was evidence of the right’s devious, vicious agenda. Talk about an ironic prelude to a session nominally devoted to understanding the crisis of public confidence in higher ed.

The state gathering featured the state chief turning a scheduled three-minute introduction into 20 minutes of campaign-style histrionics. Parental concerns about schools cutting them out of the loop regarding their kids’ gender identity? Just a matter of “anti-LGBT+” bigotry. Parents expressing opposition to elementary school libraries stocking potentially pornographic materials? Just more right-wing “book banning.” He didn’t get around to chronic absenteeism, chaotic classrooms, or dismal student achievement, but he did make time to brag about increased spending. By the time the warm-ups had ridden roughshod over their theoretically tightly scripted schedule, our session (billed at 60 minutes when they’d asked me to fly out) wound up running a terse 26 minutes. If I was part of the gang, I might’ve laughed all this off. As someone conscious throughout of being an outsider, it all seemed to send a clear but subtle and—I’m fairly sure—unintended message.

In both convenings, I felt less like I was at a big-tent gathering of educators than that I was crashing a local Democratic Party meet-up. There wasn’t even a token bit of right-friendly rhetoric: nary a “liberty,” “belt-tightening,” “personal responsibility,” “rigor,” or “reasonable people will disagree about these things” to be found among the welcoming blather. And yet the organizers of each affair went out of their way to tell me that they had right-leaning members in attendance, wanted to ensure that those members felt valued and heard, and expressed their intention to demonstrate what it looks like to help members lead in these polarized times.

All of which left me confused. Did they not recognize how political all this opening jabber felt? Did they deem these opening remarks pro forma, as if sharing left-wing talking points at an education convening is like singing the Star-Spangled Banner before a big game? Did they imagine that conservative concerns are so manifestly insincere that even right-wingers don’t really believe them? In any event, it was discomfiting. It was rather as if I had launched one of the common ground dinners I host—with guests from the teacher unions, Biden appointees, and such—by asking a Trump apologist to toss out 15 or 20 minutes of right-wing red meat.

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And keep in mind that this was all preamble for sessions in which they’d gone to some considerable effort or expense to bring me in, explicitly to model thoughtful engagement across our divides. In these cases, though, I’ll admit that (by the time I’d nodded through all the darts tossed at my views and values) I was less primed for good-faith engagement than I would’ve liked. And that’s the real issue.

Look, perhaps there aren’t actually any conservatives in those rooms. Or if there are, perhaps they are so cowed that they just accept this state of affairs as their lot. Either way, the groupthink was stifling. I hate to think how it goes when a brand-name right-winger isn’t about to go on stage. And none of this was conducive to helping educators learn how better to navigate or bridge good-faith differences.

As I’m always telling my young staffers, talk is cheap. What we do is what matters. That’s how we show what we value. And that’s what made these events instructive. I came away freshly reminded of three things that I’ve long noted. First, for all the talk about wanting to engage across difference, I’m not sure how many in education really mean it. Second, groupthink has settled so thickly in the power centers of K–12 and higher education that many in those worlds don’t even see it. Third, little things matter when it comes to building bridges or forging trust with those from outside one’s charmed circle.

I don’t know if those inside such ideological bubbles are able to acknowledge them or, if so, willing to do anything about them. If they can’t or won’t, though, I can only hope that eventually they’ll realize they’re speaking, at best, to only half the nation.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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