It’s been a rough few weeks, months, even years in the world of education, particularly when it comes to engaging in productive discourse. No matter what education conversation takes place—from debating critical race theory to the back-and-forth regarding masks in classrooms—it’s not always easy to have an honest, productive conversation about solutions or what to do next.
If educators are working for children to create the best learning environments for learners of all ages, how do we communicate and work with each other, when it feels incredibly difficult? Is there a way to get back to civil discourse, which is not defined as mere politeness, but rather a process where individuals gather, listen to each other, debate, make up their minds, and determine a course of action?
Deep in the heart of New Orleans, a hotbed of American culture and history, scholars Cornel West and Robert George—or as they call each other, Brother West and Brother Robbie—came together during the ISTE 2022 conference to discuss exactly that. (I had the honor of moderating the discussion.)
Though these two esteemed academics live at opposite ends of the political and philosophical spectrum, they share a friendship spanning the decades. West is an esteemed scholar of philosophy, and African-American studies, and a prominent commentator on political and social issues. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and is a leading legal scholar.
So, how do we take discourse from unproductive to productive? West and George took to the ISTE stage to share a few recommendations—and some of their more controversial opinions.
#1: Genuine dialogue must be rooted in respect and awareness of human fallibility.
As the overlap of politics and education has gotten more extreme in the last few years, issues around mask wearing and how we should teach history have played out more and more in the school context. Thus, what is the role of schools when it comes to topics in which folks live at opposite ends of the political spectrum?
According to West, when there is “deep distrust,” you won’t have “genuine dialogue.” But in order to reach a point of trust, you must exhibit a level of vulnerability.
George added that individuals must have “a commitment to truth seek,” where they choose to pursue truth relentlessly. Beyond that, there’s a requirement to be aware of and acknowledge our own imperfections.
“If we do not acknowledge our own fallibility, there is no possibility of civil discourse, there is no possibility of truth seeking,” said George. “We will seek to shut down anybody who disagrees with us or turn our backs and not listen.”
#2: The internet doesn’t create difficult discourse—people do.
In a time when most interactions between students are happening in virtual spaces, some may wonder how we educate young people on the importance of civil discourse in digital spaces—especially when the current state of the internet isn’t always “civil.” West argued that folks can’t just resort to blaming the internet. Rather, the internet is a tool with living, breathing humans behind it.
“Any form of technology is always subordinate to the quality of the person who is using it,” West explained. “If you’re on the internet, just in order to get attention, just in order to vent, or just in order to express some kind of raw passion… then you’re not going to have a serious quest for truth that Brother Robbie’s talking about.”
West further added a point of optimism: “It is possible to have high-quality conversation on the internet, if you are a high-quality-conversation person.”
#3: Teamwork between stakeholders is crucial when setting ethical guidelines for students.
Any educator recognizes that there are general questions of educational ethics for the everyday—such as, how do we give every student equitable resources? But recently, more incideniary topics, like whether stun gun-equipped drones are the answer to preventing school shootings (as tech company Taser suggested), have emerged. How do we set ethical guidelines around what happens in the classroom—and who should determine if we’re abiding by those guidelines?
Here, West and George respectfully deviated. For George, parents and families, including grandparents, have the primary role to direct the upbringing and education of their children. “The Supreme Court of the United States recognized constitutional protection for the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” he explained, adding that “parents need to be in a partnership with teachers” where the two parties work closely together.
West painted the issue more holistically, arguing that anyone involved in decision-making must have deep respect for others involved, especially when disagreements are involved. He used his own relationship with George as an example:
“To be respected is [to have] someone who cares enough to take the time to follow through on whether they agree or disagree,” he said. “I have great respect for brother Robbie, even given my disagreements. He has respect for me, even given his disagreements. But we have a love that’s fundamental. And that love has to do with compassion, it has to do with consideration.”
#4: The ideal classroom is full of dialogue and failure—not indoctrination.
Though the ISTE conferences take a laser focus into technology in the classroom, neither West nor George identified technology as their top component for an ideal classroom setting. Rather, they spoke fondly about the relationship that they have, and the lessons they’ve learned throughout their years as professors.
West, for example, spoke of “a Socratic sense of intellectual humility,” in which words and action blend. But students also shouldn’t be afraid to fail, and according to West, any classroom must adopt a Samuel Beckett “try again, fail again, fail better” mentality.
“Socrates, like Malcolm X, he says what he means and he means what he says,” West explained. “And that’s really what sincerity, that’s what integrity is all about, but you’re going to fall on your face.”
George agreed, describing the difference between teaching and indoctrinating:
“The teacher’s not trying to tell the student what to think, to be liberal, to be conservative, whatever,” he said. “But empowering the student by encouraging and enhancing the student’s ability to think deeply, think critically, which always includes self-critically, because we are fallible.”
George wrapped up by adding one last comment, about the difficulties of teaching: “I would much rather my students be ignorant than be indoctrinated. If they’re ignorant, I’ll be able to teach them something. If they’re indoctrinated before I can ever teach them something, I’ve got to pry open their minds with a crowbar.”