A History in Which We Can All See Ourselves

Edutopia

Educators are finding ways to tell a richer history of America—responding to the demands of an increasingly diverse student body.

After a recent assignment on Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the New World, a student approached eighth-grade teacher Vanee Matsalia after class. The girl, whose family is from the Caribbean, told Matsalia that the lesson was the first time she had heard her people mentioned in school.

“‘I can’t wait to go home and tell my dad—he’s going to be so excited, but so angry when he finds out what happened,’” Matsalia remembers her saying, referring to Columbus and his fellow colonizers enslaving and killing many of the indigenous people they encountered when they landed.

Neta Snook adjusts the propellers of a plane.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An archival image of Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart’s flight instructor, adjusting a plane’s propeller in 1920.

Matsalia teaches English language arts (ELA)—not history—but for the past seven years, she has been working hand-in-hand with a history teacher at her largely black and Latino Title I middle school in San Bernardino, California. Together, they co-teach units in which students probe into a complicated U.S. historical narrative, one that highlights stories of populations and events often left out of history books. Students then research, write, and build projects about these “other” perspectives in ELA.

“I hear from students all the time, ‘Why have I never seen this before?’ They are often in shock,” said Matsalia of the course. “The lessons resonate when connected to something students can belong and respond to.”

Matsalia is part of a growing group of educators working to expand K–12 history curricula to include the narratives of people from a wider range of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds at a time when schools, and the country, are becoming rapidly more diverse. These changes in coursework are happening in synchrony with others—like a shift away from punitive discipline and a focus on social and emotional learning—aimed at making schools more culturally responsive and attuned to the whole child.

FOCUSING ON RESEARCH

Proponents of greater inclusivity in history say that when young people see themselves in the story of our shared past, they not only develop a deeper appreciation of the subject but become more civically active, citing research indicating that students who feel a sense of belonging and identity in school are more likely to be engaged in society more broadly.

Research also shows that the self-image of students can suffer when they regularly encounter negative depictions of people who look like them. And a 2010 study of ninth- and 10th-grade students extends that insight to omissions, finding that girls performed significantly better on a chemistry quiz when the textbook lessons featured images of only female scientists, while the performance of boys declined under the same conditions—leading the researchers to conclude that the simple act of representation can level the playing field.

Unfortunately, progress in social studies curricula has been slow moving. A Rutgers University study found that while social studies courses are “pivotal sites” for promoting civic engagement in young people, schools with high percentages of students of color and low-income students tend to have “the least innovative and most ineffective” social studies courses. As a result, students frequently find the study of history and government “alienating and irrelevant,” or they see a disconnect between “civic ideals and the reality of their lives.”

CHANGING REQUIREMENTS

There may be changes ahead. The Philadelphia district made it a requirement for students to take at least one African American history class to graduate. Montana, Washington, and Wisconsin now mandate that Native American history be taught to students, while New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois have put laws on the books requiring all students to study the Holocaust and other genocides. And in 2011, California passed legislation requiring districts to include the roles and contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in state social studies curricula.

Photograph of Pilot LeRoi S. Williams in Tuskegee, Alabama, during WWII.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An archival image of LeRoi S. Williams, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II who was killed in the line of duty.

These requirements have not involved the removal of key historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, as skeptics have warned or fretted.

In California, the history curriculum guidelines and materials weave in the contributions and sexual orientation of LGBTQ historical figures like Walt Whitman, and significant events in LGBTQ history like the Stonewall Riots, which have often been missing from schools’ history curricula. And the 11th-grade standards, for example, address familiar themes like the rise of America as a superpower and the contributions of key leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, but also discuss the roles of African American soldiers during World War II and the Lavender Scare that targeted LGBTQ government officials during the 1950s.

“The more people understand other perspectives and the more we include underrepresented people in history, the more they are legitimized as American history,” says Shana Brown, a middle school teacher in Seattle Public Schools who helped write the Native American history curriculum for Washington state.

A telegram from Boyd Coab to Cordelia Williams notifies her of the death her son Leroi S. Willliams, killed in duty.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A telegram informs LeRoi S. Williams’s mother of his passing in 1943.

As a teacher in the 1990s, Brown, who grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, began weaving Native American history into her coursework because it was absent from textbooks. Hoping to take this work one step further, Brown traveled to the capital and got involved in efforts to change Washington’s history curriculum. In 2005, legislation passed recommending that schools include tribal history; by 2015, it had become a requirement.

“I went through all of school and college thinking my history wasn’t relevant or I didn’t have one. When I became a teacher, I realized that our history does matter and my history is American history,” said Brown, who still teaches and was recently recognized as a Great Educator by the U.S. Department of Education.

UPSTANDERS

But for teachers and districts that want to refresh their history materials, there can be a difficult trade-off, according to Tim Bailey, education director at The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nearly 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to K–12 American history education.

Bailey said teachers often have to perform a balancing act between meeting state history standards that are politicized and slow to change, and trying to teach history lessons that a diverse range of students will find meaningful—placing the onus on the teacher to seek out additional teaching materials. “Do you teach a mile wide and an inch deep? Or do you go for depth and understanding?” Bailey said. “Those are hard decisions for teachers to grapple with.”

Due to states’ evolving requirements and interest from teachers, schools and communities are thinking creatively about how to work together.

A session at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.

©Illinois Holocaust Museum

Two high school students at Overton High School work with Dr. Marilyn Taylor to discover the story of lynching in local Shelby County.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie now collaborates with schools, for example, welcoming 62,000 schoolchildren and educators annually to learn about the history of genocides around the world. A recent study found that 66 percent of millennials did not know what Auschwitz was. The museum has also hosted sold-out professional development sessions on topics like “Difficult Conversations,” which helps teachers discuss events that may make both students and educators uncomfortable.

“The purpose of learning about what led up to the Holocaust is not just to remember the past, but to transform the future,” said Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, vice president of education and exhibitions at the museum. “Students can then look at what’s happening in their society, or even on their playground, and they are equipped and empowered to be what we call an upstander, not a bystander.”

HITTING REFRESH

But according to experts, teachers should also look around them for easily accessible resources and materials to make history more inclusive—and sometimes, those are found in their own communities or classrooms.

A reward poster from 1852 offers a $2500 reward for runaway slaves in Missouri.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An image from Gilder Lehrman’s digital archives shows an 1852 poster offering $2,500 for runaway slaves in Missouri.

Using Gilder Lehrman’s massive, free online collection of primary source materials, teachers can help students connect to the experiences and emotions of the people in the stories—especially ones who look like them. This may mean reading a poster written by women in the early 20th century discussing the importance of having the right to vote, a flyer for a slave auction, or a letter urging people to vote for an African American vice presidential candidate in the late 1800s.

It can also mean hitting refresh on old materials. In her winter unit on the book A Wrinkle in Time, Matsalia used the main character, Meg, to walk her students in San Bernardino through issues of gender representation and traditional gender roles at the time the book was published in 1962. She asked students to consider whether one character referred to is a trans person—and then they discussed how history has viewed trans people and how society views them today.

Finding new course materials may also involve looking around locally. With support from the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, Dr. Marilyn Taylor taught her students at Overton High School a lesson on how Reconstruction led to racial violence like lynchings, which motivated students to see if any lynchings had occurred in Shelby County, Tennessee, where their school is located. After finding that one had happened less than 20 minutes from their school, students banded together to mark all the local lynchings and held memorials at each site for the victims.

Dr. Taylor teaches a Facing History lesson to students.

©Memphis Flyer

Two high school students at Overton High School work with Dr. Marilyn Taylor to discover the story of lynching in local Shelby County.

Now a freshman at the University of Memphis majoring in psychology and criminal justice, Overton alum Khamilla Johnson said that she often reflects on lessons learned during the memorial project, which helped influence her future choices.

“I think about [Dr. Taylor’s class] all the time, because it really helped to shape my character and gave me a position to use my voice,” said Johnson, who hopes to one day join the FBI. “Dr. Taylor reminded me that I do have a voice, that I can speak out about things that matter and make a difference.”

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When a Student Says, ‘I’m Not a Boy or a Girl’

Photo

Sofia Martin, 18, a senior at Puget Sound Community School in Seattle, identifies as nonbinary — neither a boy or a girl — and uses the pronouns they or them. CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

At the age of 15, after rehearsing in the shower, Sofia Martin made an announcement to the students at Puget Sound Community School.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am,” Sofia recalled saying at the morning meeting, a daily assembly of the school’s 52 students and staff members. “I’ve come to the decision that I’m nonbinary, which means that I’m not a boy or a girl.” Sofia asked the teachers and the students, who are in grades six through 12, to use the pronouns they or them, which they promised to do.

Over the course of the next year, Sofia, who is now 18, pushed for a gender-neutral bathroom and encouraged fellow students to name their pronouns when they introduced themselves. Today Puget Sound, a small, unconventional private school in Seattle, has converted a former men’s room into an all-gender restroom and four more students have made similar announcements in front of the whole school.

“I don’t want to suggest that we got this perfectly right, although I will say that doing something was right,” Andy Smallman, the founder and director of the school, wrote in an email about the restroom.

At some schools, teaching for and about transgender people is a battle, epitomized by nationwide debates over “bathroom bills.” But at others, educators aren’t battling against trans students or their needs. Instead, schools like Puget Sound are altering their policies to include transgender kids and, more broadly, to make gender a deliberate part of the curriculum. Students are leading the way, driving schools to adopt more inclusive teaching methods.

“Ten years ago, I wasn’t really talking at all about transgender in my classes,” said Emily Umberger, who teaches health at two private schools in Charlottesville, Va. Now, “the kids are very comfortable asking questions about gender identity, transgender stuff. It’s amazing how much that has changed in a few years.”

As alternative private schools test these ideas classroom by classroom, some larger school districts are enacting them more widely. The California Healthy Youth Act, which went into effect in 2016, requires all California public schools to teach students about gender expression and gender stereotypes. (Outside of the classroom, California just passed a law allowing a third gender option on state drivers’ licenses and birth certificates, for people who identify as nonbinary.) In Florida, Broward County requires middle school students to learn about gender identity.

Of course, not all schools or parents accept these changes. Glsen, a national nonprofit focused on L.G.B.T. issues in K-12 education, notes that in some parts of the country there are laws that forbid teachers to talk about gay and transgender people in a positive way in the classroom. Alabama, for example, requires teachers to emphasize “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Parents, too, can weigh in. Recently Chloe Bressack, a fifth-grade teacher in Florida, sent a letter to parents asking to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns like “they, them, theirs.” After some parents complained, the teacher was transferred to a different school in the district.

But at some schools — many of them rooted in progressive pedagogy, with an emphasis on hands-on learning and social responsibility — teachers and administrators are listening when students demand they catch up on gender. Educators then have to figure out the quotidian details: Can boys wear skirts and still follow the dress code? How should teachers explain that most people with uteruses will get their periods, but not all people with their periods have to be girls? And what to do about those bathrooms, anyway?

Many educators and students noted that the goal is not just teaching kids to be accepting of trans or gender nonconforming people. Instead, it’s about loosening up the whole idea of gender, for every kid.

“This is not about those kids,” said Deborah Roffman, a teacher at the Park School in Baltimore who has been teaching human sexuality for 40 years. “Everybody in this building has a gender identity, which exists along a continuum.”

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Sofia’s school has converted a former men’s room into an all-gender restroom.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

Unlike the stark sex-ed films of the past (with messages that amounted to “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die”), today teachers read aloud from books about transgender kids (or books about gender-bending crayons or same-sex penguin dads) to start conversations. Rossana Zapf, a learning and curriculum support coordinator at the Miquon School in Philadelphia, read the elementary students Jazz Jennings’s picture book “I am Jazz,” and Michael Hall’s “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” about a blue crayon who is mistakenly labeled red.

“That reminds me of my friend,” a kindergartner said after the reading.

Ms. Umberger in Charlottesville said she uses a little game to explain the gender binary, the idea that boys and girls are opposites and that people must be one or the other. “I’ll say, what’s your favorite color? Is it lime green or crimson? And they’ll say, actually it’s royal blue,” she said. By showing that sometimes two rigid options aren’t enough, she teaches them what it means to be nonbinary.

At the Green Acres School in Bethesda, Md., students are asking administrators to rethink the dress code for eighth grade graduation, says Ann Kappell Danner, the middle school counselor. Typically, the girls wear dresses and the boys wear suits and ties. Now the students are proposing that the dress code be gender neutral: a list of acceptable clothing with no determination of which gender should wear what.

“The students are so hungry for this,” said Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides a free sex-ed curriculum for K-12 students which includes lessons about the range of gender identities. “When I’m in a school, the students are leading the way, and adults are desperately trying to catch up.”

As kids push forward, it can be difficult for even the most supportive parents and schools to know what the best course of action looks like.

A 36-year-old mother at a progressive school in Seattle, who asked not to be named because she was sharing intimate details about her young child, informed the school last year that her 6-year-old identified as a girl. The daughter, assigned male at birth, had been trying on dresses and playing around with girls’ names for about three years and she wanted to be recognized as a girl.

The teachers were 100 percent supportive, the mother says. They just wanted to know what to do. But that was exactly the problem.

“Just because I have a kid who’s going through this doesn’t make me at all an expert,” the woman said. “I kind of felt like I was drowning in information, but at the same time, very alone.”

She explained her daughter’s transition to the parents and other teachers at the school, and helped her daughter tell her class. But a year later, she still feels uncertain.

“It’s tough when people say follow your kid’s lead,” the woman said. “We’re talking about a 7-year-old who has no concept of what this looks like in the future.”

637COMMENTS

At the moment, though, even little kids are grasping the big ideas. At the Advent School in Boston, Erina Spiegelman, who is an instructional coordinator, recalled that a teacher last year asked a group of students the big question: “What is gender?”

The first answer came from a second-grader: “It’s a thing people invented to put you in a category.”

Correction: October 25, 2017 
An earlier version of this article misstated the state where a fifth-grade teacher who asked to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns works. It is Florida, not Tennessee.

What Can’t Be Debated on Campus

The Wall Street Journal

Pilloried for her politically incorrect views, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax asks if it’s still possible to have substantive arguments about divisive issues.

What Can’t Be Debated on Campus
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN CUNEO

There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with lip service paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them.

The op-ed, which I co-authored with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego Law School, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Aug. 9 under the headline, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” It began by listing some of the ills afflicting American society:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

We then discussed the “cultural script”—a list of behavioral norms—that was almost universally endorsed between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These norms defined a concept of adult responsibility that was, we wrote, “a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains and social coherence of that period.” The fact that the “bourgeois culture” these norms embodied has broken down since the 1960s, we argued, largely explains today’s social pathologies—and re-embracing that culture would go a long way toward addressing those pathologies.

In what became the most controversial passage, we pointed out that some cultures are less suited to preparing people to be productive citizens in a modern technological society, and we gave examples:

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.

The author lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
The author lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. PHOTO: WILL FIGG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The reactions to this piece raise the question of how unorthodox opinions should be dealt with in academia—and in American society at large. It is well documented that American universities today are dominated, more than ever before, by academics on the left end of the political spectrum. How should these academics handle opinions that depart, even quite sharply, from their “politically correct” views?

The proper response would be to engage in reasoned debate—to attempt to explain, using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong. This kind of civil discourse is obviously important at law schools like mine, because law schools are dedicated to teaching students how to think about and argue all sides of a question. But academic institutions in general should also be places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.

What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification and mindless labeling. Likewise, we should not reject the views of others without providing reasoned arguments. Yet these once common standards of practice have been violated repeatedly at my own and at other academic institutions in recent years, and we increasingly see this trend in society as well.

Hurling labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify or educate.

One might respond that unreasoned slurs and outright condemnations are also speech and must be defended. My recent experience has caused me to rethink this position. In debating others, we should have higher standards. Of course one has the right to hurl labels like “racist,” “sexist” and “xenophobic”—but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Hurling such labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.

So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as hate speech—racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, “heteropatriarchial,” etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way.

response published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, our school newspaper, and signed by five of my Penn Law School colleagues, charged us with the sin of praising the 1950s—a decade when racial discrimination was openly practiced and opportunities for women were limited. I do not agree with the contention that because a past era is marked by benighted attitudes and practices—attitudes and practices we had acknowledged in our op-ed—it has nothing to teach us. But at least this response attempted to make an argument.

Born on college campuses, free-speech debates have returned, leaving students, faculty and administrations caught in the crosshairs. WSJ’s Jason Bellini goes back to class to see why some students have had it with free speech.

Not so an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and signed by 33 of my colleagues. This letter quoted random passages from the op-ed and from a subsequent interview I gave to the school newspaper, condemned both and categorically rejected all of my views. It then invited students, in effect, to monitor me and to report any “stereotyping and bias” they might experience or perceive. This letter contained no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error.

We hear a lot of talk about role models—people to be emulated, who set a positive example for students and others. In my view, the 33 professors who signed this letter are anti-role models. To students and citizens alike I say: Don’t follow their lead by condemning people for their views without providing a reasoned argument. Reject their example. Not only are they failing to teach you the practice of civil discourse—the sine qua non of liberal education and democracy—they are sending the message that civil discourse is unnecessary. As Jonathan Haidt of New York University wrote in September on the website Heterodox Academy: “Every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.”

It is gratifying to note that the reader comments on the open letter were overwhelmingly critical. The letter has “no counterevidence,” one reader wrote, “no rebuttal to [Wax’s] arguments, just an assertion that she’s wrong…. This is embarrassing.” Another wrote: “This letter is an exercise in self-righteous virtue-signaling that utterly fails to deal with the argument so cogently presented by Wax and Alexander…. Note to parents, if you want your daughter or son to learn to address an argument, do not send them to Penn Law.”

The University of Pennsylvania Law School’s campus.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School’s campus. PHOTO: WILL FIGG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Shortly after the op-ed appeared, I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen for a while and asked how his summer was going. He said he’d had a terrible summer, and in saying it he looked so serious I thought someone had died. He then explained that the reason his summer had been ruined was my op-ed, and he accused me of attacking and causing damage to the university, the students and the faculty. One of my left-leaning friends at Yale Law School found this story funny—who would have guessed an op-ed could ruin someone’s summer? But beyond the absurdity, note the choice of words: “attack” and “damage” are words one uses with one’s enemies, not colleagues or fellow citizens. At the very least, they are not words that encourage the expression of unpopular ideas. They reflect a spirit hostile to such ideas—indeed, a spirit that might seek to punish the expression of such ideas.

I had a similar conversation with a deputy dean. She had been unable to sign the open letter because of her official position, but she defended it as having been necessary. It needed to be written to get my attention, she told me, so that I would rethink what I had written and understand the hurt I had inflicted and the damage I had done, so that I wouldn’t do it again. The message was clear: Cease the heresy.

Only half of my colleagues in the law school signed the open letter. One who didn’t sent me a thoughtful and lawyerly email explaining how and why she disagreed with particular assertions in the op-ed. We had an amicable email exchange, from which I learned a lot—some of her points stick with me—and we remain cordial colleagues. That is how things should work.

Of the 33 who signed the letter, only one came to talk to me about it, and I am grateful for that. About three minutes into our conversation, he admitted that he didn’t categorically reject everything in the op-ed. Bourgeois values aren’t really so bad, he conceded, nor are all cultures equally worthy. Given that those were the main points of the op-ed, I asked him why he had signed the letter. His answer was that he didn’t like my saying, in my interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian, that the tendency of global migrants to flock to white European countries indicates the superiority of some cultures. This struck him as “code,” he said, for Nazism.

Well, let me state for the record that I don’t endorse Nazism!

Furthermore, the charge that a statement is “code” for something else, or a “dog whistle” of some kind—we frequently hear this charge leveled, even against people who are stating demonstrable facts—is unanswerable. It is like accusing a speaker of causing emotional injury or feelings of marginalization. Using this kind of language, which students have learned to do all too well, is intended to bring discussion and debate to a stop—to silence speech deemed unacceptable.

As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, we can make words mean whatever we want them to mean. And who decides what is code for something else or what qualifies as a dog whistle? Those in power, of course—which in academia means the Left.

Students need the opposite of protection from diverse arguments and points of view.

My 33 colleagues might have believed they were protecting students from being injured by harmful opinions, but they were doing those students no favors. Students need the opposite of protection from diverse arguments and points of view. They need exposure to them. This exposure will teach them how to think. As John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

I have received more than 1,000 emails from around the country in the months since the op-ed was published—mostly supportive, some critical and for the most part thoughtful and respectful. Many expressed the thought, “You said what we are thinking but are afraid to say”—a sad commentary on the state of civil discourse in our society. Many urged me not to back down, cower or apologize. And I agree with them that dissenters apologize far too often.

As for Penn, the calls to action against me continue. My law school dean recently asked me to take a leave of absence next year and to cease teaching a mandatory first-year course. He explained that he was getting “pressure” to banish me for my unpopular views and hoped that my departure would quell the controversy. When I suggested that it was his job as a leader to resist such illiberal demands, he explained that he is a “pluralistic dean” who must listen to and accommodate “all sides.”

Democracy thrives on talk and debate, and it is not for the faint of heart. I read things every day in the media and hear things every day at my job that I find exasperating and insulting, including falsehoods and half-truths about people who are my friends. Offense and upset go with the territory; they are part and parcel of an open society. We should be teaching our young people to get used to these things, but instead we are teaching them the opposite.

Disliking, avoiding and shunning people who don’t share our politics is not good for our country. We live together, and we need to solve our problems together. It is also always possible that people we disagree with have something to offer, something to contribute, something to teach us. We ignore this at our peril. As Heather Mac Donald wrote in National Review about the controversy over our op-ed: “What if the progressive analysis of inequality is wrong…and a cultural analysis is closest to the truth? If confronting the need to change behavior is punishable ‘hate speech,’ then it is hard to see how the country can resolve its social problems.” In other words, we are at risk of being led astray by received opinion.

The American way is to conduct free and open debate in a civil manner. We should return to doing that on our college campuses and in our society at large.

The Scariest Catholic in America

The New York Times

Image
CreditBen Wiseman

The Rev. James Martin is a Roman Catholic rock star. His books, including one on Jesus Christ and another on the saints, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The director Martin Scorsese has twice hired him to consult on movies with religious themes. Television producers love him: Back when Stephen Colbert had his Comedy Central show, Father Martin popped up frequently as its “official chaplain.”

So the reaction when he agreed to speak this month to a group of parishes in central New Jersey was unalloyed elation, right?

Wrong. Within days of the announcement, parish officials were in a state better described as dread.

Check out the websites and Twitter accounts of far-right Catholic groups and you’ll see why. To them Father Martin is “sick,” “wicked,” “a filthy liar,” “the smoke of Satan” and a “heretic” on a fast track to “eternal damnation.” They obsessively stalk him and passionately exhort churchgoers to protest his public appearances or prevent them from happening altogether.

And they succeed. After the New Jersey parish in which his remarks were supposed to be delivered was inundated with angry phone calls, the event was moved off church grounds. Father Martin will give his spectacularly uncontroversial talk — “Jesus Christ: Fully Human, Fully Divine” — at a secular conference center in a nearby town.

Why all this drama? What’s Father Martin’s unconscionable sin? In his most recent book, “Building a Bridge,” which was published in June, he calls on Catholics to show L.G.B.T. people more respect and compassion than many of them have demonstrated in the past.

That’s all. That’s it. He doesn’t say that the church should bless gay marriage or gay adoption. He doesn’t explicitly reject church teaching, which prescribes chastity for gay men and lesbians, though he questions the language — “intrinsically disordered” — with which it describes homosexuality.

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The Rev. James Martin.CreditDavid Gonzalez/The New York Times

But that hasn’t stopped his detractors from casting him as a terrifying enemy of the faith — Regan in “The Exorcist” and Damien in “The Omen” rolled together and grown up into a balding and bespectacled Jesuit — and silencing him whenever they can. A talk about Jesus that he was supposed to give in London last fall was canceled. So was a similar talk at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America.

And the vitriol to which he has been subjected is breathtaking, a reminder not just of how much homophobia is still out there but also of how presumptuous, overwrought, cruel and destructive discourse in this digital age can be.

“Inexcusably ugly” was how the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, described the attacks on Father Martin in an essay for the Catholic journal First Things in September. Archbishop Chaput is no progressive, but still he was moved to write that “the bitterness directed at the person of Father Martin is not just unwarranted and unjust; it’s a destructive counter-witness to the Gospel.” He cited a recent article in a French publication with the headline “Catholic Cyber-Militias and the New Censorship,” observing, “We live at a time when civility is universally longed for and just as universally (and too often gleefully) violated.”

After Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego published a similar defense of Father Martin in the Jesuit magazine America, one of Father Martin’s devoted inquisitors tweeted: “If you think the anti-sodomite bigotry in the church is bad, you should see hell.”

I spoke with Bishop McElroy recently, and he said that while there are calm-voiced critics of Father Martin with earnest concerns about what they see as the church’s drift from traditional sexual morality, there are also out-and-out bigots whose methods are “incompatible with what we hope to be as a church.”

“We have to face the fact that there is a group of people across all religious views that are particularly antagonistic to L.G.B.T. people,” he told me. “That comes from deep within the human soul, and it’s really corrosive and repugnant.”

I have known Father Martin for many years and have long been struck by the painstakingly careful balance that he maintains. Is he telling his fellow Catholics to judge L.G.B.T. people less harshly, whether they’re chaste or not? Absolutely. When he and I talked a few days ago, he repeated a recommendation in “Building a Bridge” that Catholic institutions stop firing gay people, which has happened repeatedly.

“Straight couples do not have their sexual lives put under a microscope like that, nor are they targeted,” he told me. “A couple living together before they’re married aren’t fired from a Catholic school.” But that arrangement runs as afoul of church teaching as a sexually active gay or lesbian couple’s does.

From listening to Father Martin, it’s certainly possible to conclude that, or at least wonder if, he has qualms with church teaching about homosexuality. But he’s so restrained and respectful that the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States officially approved “Building a Bridge,” which has also been endorsed by an array of prominent cardinalsand bishops.

And he trails behind many members of his faith in his publicly stated views. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center last June, 67 percent of Americans who identify as Catholic support the legalization of same-sex marriage, in contrast to 62 percent of Americans across the board.

But the far right isn’t quietly ceding the fight. That’s clear not only in the response to Father Martin but also in a federal education bill, drafted by Republicans, that would protect colleges that ban openly gay relationships or bar gays from certain religious organizations on campus.

And in the church as in the government, the scorched-earth tactics of ultraconservatives often gives them a sway disproportionate to their actual numbers. “These online hate groups are now more powerful than local churches,” Father Martin said, referring specifically to Church Militant and to the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which started a petition demanding that the New Jersey parishes cancel his appearance. It gathered 12,000 signatures.

Lyle Garcia, 72, one of the parishioners involved in the decision to invite Father Martin, admitted to me that he was “very concerned” that in changing the location of the event, they’d rewarded and emboldened the haters. But at least, he said, the talk would proceed.

As will Father Martin. An expanded edition of “Building a Bridge” will be published in March, and it includes material about L.G.B.T. Catholics who told him, as he promoted the book, that it had given them desperately needed comfort.

“I’m at total peace,” he told me. “I really am. An ocean of hate online is really wiped out by just a few tears from an L.G.B.T. person.” Only one thing to say to that: Amen.

What Happens to Empathy Deferred?

NAIS Blog

As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one’s own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows.  The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.

The importance of the ability to see the world from the perspective of others became apparent to me when I was a somewhat lonely, out-of-place freshman at my New England boarding school. At 14, I quickly began to see and understand that I was different from most of my peers. My views and perspectives were different as a result of being a black urban kid from the often unforgiving south side of Chicago. Over the years, I learned that my approach to many issues, assignments, and problems was vastly different from those of my white friends. As a black person living in a white world, I learned to understand the white perspective, and it was strange and frustrating that white people rarely, if ever, bothered to learn or even inquire about how I saw the world.
This was most apparent in 1995 when, as a senior, I was reviled by my classmates and, more shockingly, by my teachers, dorm parents, and coaches for celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict. While I knew that my white classmates wouldn’t understand why the black students, like most of black America, felt jubilation that day, I was disappointed that educated adults, some of whom had seen me grow and mature since my freshman year, could not be open-minded enough to look at this national issue from my point of view.  As usual of course, I was supposed to see the issue from their point of view.
I had the same experience a couple of weeks later with the Million Man March on the National Mall. Why did the people with whom I interacted daily and who cared about me lack the desire to empathize with my thoughts and feelings about issues that had directly affected me, my loved ones, and other people who looked like me?

Why the Differences Matter

Although I learned a lot and have an abiding affection for the four years I spent at my independent school, I wish some things had been different. Had my school focused on mindfulness and empathy back then and incorporated them into the curriculum, my experience and those of the other black students probably would have been different. I think that it would have been more equal, more fair. My experiences would have been more like those of my white classmates: My school trials would have been limited to in-the-classroom and on-the-field challenges.
Instead, we students of color frequently were forced to address, on our own, micro-aggressions and problems that the majority of our classmates didn’t even realize existed. As a result, I felt out of place on the very campus where I lived most days over four years. I frequently felt unsupported and misunderstood because there were very few adults who truly understood my everyday challenges. My ideas were often dismissed or met with indifference. I felt like a bull living among a campus full of horses.

New Generation and New Opportunities

Today, I am not bitter; I am hopeful. My goal is to offer this perspective on the importance of sparing future generations of students of color my experience by supporting the growing movement to develop in students nonacademic abilities like mindfulness and empathy.
According to NAIS data, independent schools are heavily populated by students who increasingly come from different backgrounds and who, consequently, see the world very differently. Education experts stress that in order to offer the most substantive and meaningful education, we must embrace and teach skills that promote mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a view I’ve held since the 1990s, when I realized that my own perspective-taking ability and understanding of how people operate would be critical to my success. Thanks to my school’s student diversity, I learned to expand my understanding of people who weren’t like me. Where else would a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago get to room with a Japanese student and learn Japanese customs? Where else could a hip-hop loving, urban basketball-junkie teenager find his voice and a true passion to advocate for racial understanding and multiculturalism?
Today, developing reciprocal understanding, mutual respect, and empathy among diverse populations remains our greatest challenge. The need has perhaps never been more obvious. In the last two years alone, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, to name just a few, have focused national attention on racial inequality and social injustice. We have heard “I Can’t Breathe” chants and seen “Black Lives Matter” signs and hashtags that raise awareness of and express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Independent schools claim to embrace missions that promise to lead the way — to create a healthier culture of cooperation and understanding. Consequently, independent schools must actively work to ensure that those missions aren’t empty abstractions.
What I have learned is that creating a culture of empathy requires a level playing field.  Young people need guidance from adults who understand them, who share their background and experiences. Understanding others is more likely to occur if people first understand themselves — if they understand who they are, what they think, and why they think it. White students in independent schools have the white mentors and role models they need in order to develop this sort of self-confidence and understanding — the base from which, with further guidance, they can become increasingly understanding of others. Black and Latino students in independent schools lack sufficient numbers of black and Latino mentors.

Diversity Issues still in Deferment

I’ve recently met directly with students of color who attend independent schools. They unanimously agree that what they need most are adults who look like them and have walked the paths that they stumble along each day. Theirs is an old wish not yet realized  not yet addressed.
These students need mentors and educators of color to demonstrate to them and, equally important, to white students, that the biggest brains on campus aren’t just white teachers. Black and Latino students need teachers of color to empathize with them about issues that only they can understand because they have lived them: what it’s like to be the object of racial bigotry; what it feels like not to meet the American standard of beauty; what it’s like to carry the weight of negative stereotypes on your teenage shoulders; what it’s like to have to be courageous enough to speak out and risk either becoming a social outcast or feeling ashamed for failing to speak; even what it’s like when the hair and hygiene products you use are not available at local drugstores. Students of color need adult role models who respond thoughtfully to their ideas about current events, instead of dismissing them as “immature, idealistic, or ignorant.” That’s what I needed when I was a student, and that’s what students of color need today.

Turning the Corner with Meaningful Solutions

Creating the conditions for a more mindful, empathetic culture begins with faculty diversity. If independent schools are to truly provide a full, substantive, and meaningful education to all of their students, each institution must staff itself with educators who can provide all students firsthand experience and perspective. Schools must understand that educators of color absolutely have a critical role to play. It is they who, working with their white colleagues, will help develop empathy and understanding, while conditioning all students to understand that there are black and Latino education professionals and administrators. What better way is there to simultaneously improve the educational experience for students and faculty at independent schools, prepare students for the global society and workforce they will soon enter, combat long-standing stereotypes, and address a need that has for too long gone unaddressed?
As a black alumnus, I know firsthand that aggressively seeking and hiring candidates of color will make a significant difference. But hiring isn’t enough. Schools must do three other things. First, the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis.  Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected?
Second, schools need to hire sufficient numbers of teachers of color so that the teachers won’t feel as though they are isolated tokens or appear like tokens to other members of the faculty or to students. Retention of good teachers of color is a constant problem, and creating a strong cohort of teachers of color can improve the chances that the teachers will stay.
Third, administrators must empower teachers of color to ensure that the dominant white culture will not indirectly or unintentionally silence them. Once schools have created the right culture and conditions, the real work of developing empathy can begin and will have the greatest likelihood of success. The key is caring enough to care.

How Racial Affinity Groups Saved My Life

NAIS

Each year, I attend and look forward to NAIS’s People of Color Conference. It is the only time I sit in a room with other African American educators who also look to recharge. One year, an attendee shared with me that her experience at PoCC convinces her she is not crazy and keeps her from going insane. I feel like a member of a family and PoCC is the family reunion.

One of the many reasons I love PoCC so much is the affinity group experience. An affinity group is a group of people with common interests, background, and experience that come together to support each other. Affinity groups for people of color can be magical places in a historically elite and exclusive independent school system. Participants of both adult and student affinity groups often find it to be a place of encouragement and a way to increase their sense of belonging in their institution.


Brentwood School’s family affinity group at a brunch for mothers of African American students. Photo credit: Brentwood School

Hurting Hearts

Before I found affinity groups, I struggled to breathe. For 15 years, my tank was empty. I was exhausted beyond measure. Being the only African American educator and administrator in my predominately white institution had almost worn me down completely. My heart hurt for the efforts I made to advocate for and protect all families, but specifically families of color that existed in this white, affluent, independent school world.

In my second year at this same institution, a brilliant and talented African American young lady decided to start an African American culture club. Her idea was to celebrate African American culture and educate others about it, regardless of their racial and ethnic heritage. When one of her classmates responded, “We should start a White culture club,” I saw the strength disappear from her eyes.

This young woman battled in the same space I did. She shared in the same constant struggle to defend, justify, and give purpose to her existence as an African American on our campus. She wanted to tell her classmate that he was a card-carrying member of a white club all day, every day. That in each class his identity was so integral to the teaching and curriculum that he didn’t even realize it. She wanted to ask how it felt for him to sit in the lap of privilege and make a comment that served as a dichotomy when the reality was that his comment was why she was initiating this club. She wanted to ask him when was the last time (knowing there would never be a time) he was alone in his identity or was asked to be the spokesperson for his entire race. When had he ever been invisible? Rather than risk losing the breath that was so hard to inhale, she cried. This pain was all too familiar. I, too, was out of oxygen and could not let this be my death.

A Magical Place to Relate

Right away, the African American Culture club became the largest student club on campus. It created a space where students in all stages of their identity development could belong. Black students and their allies addressed diversity topics in the school and globally. We talked about defying stereotypes, leaders and figures in Black history, and media headlines that affected us. When one student shared that he felt a heightened sense of surveillance on campus, another student could relate. Another student shared her frustration of people touching her hair and making ignorant assumptions — and yes, we could all relate. Students expressed how they were often called the name of another student of the same race by students, teachers, and administrators.

The affinity space was a place of affirmation and empowerment that we all so desperately needed. We acknowledged shared experiences in ways that were productive, valuable, and meaningful. It was a brave space that preserved our dignity as a people. It was a place where people of the same identity could share how they navigate the complexities of a PWIS (predominately white independent school), and it was no longer an ostracized experience.

Becoming a Change Agent

For the first time, I felt invited, welcomed, and included in an institution that pretended to represent the same moral and philosophical educational initiatives that supported all people. I knew I needed to help students stay alive in this institution so I continued to create the same space that kept me alive. I knew the time would come when I gave all I had to give and needed to align my own beliefs and experience in an institutionally supportive space.

One day, I read a job description for Director of Equity and Inclusion in a different school that completely described me. The school called for an administrator who would speak to every constituent and ensure that the school was doing its best to envelop all members of the community, regardless of identity, so everyone could thrive. It was time to make a change. Now I’m in year two of being an effective change agent.

A Call to Schools

While developing and supporting affinity groups for my students, I’ve found that I’ve benefited just as much, and potentially more, than they have. Now I see the success of both student and parent affinity groups. Affinity groups allow us to support the humanity of others. It is the most inclusive effort we can make.

Most of our schools’ missions include a component of excellence or achievement. We have non-discriminatory clauses in our policies and procedures. The best way to not discriminate is to value and support the spaces of those who are underrepresented in your population. Give them a place on your campus to exist freely — and to thrive. Be committed to achieving excellence in every area of your school’s mission by recognizing that those whose identities lie in disadvantaged and oppressed groups are having a different experience. If you are uncomfortable or unable to understand the necessity of affinity groups, you probably have never needed one. However, if you are committed to providing an education that is truly excellent for all students in your institution, encourage and support the vital role affinity groups play toward this noble goal.

The Difference by Scott Page

Harvard Business Review

By Larry Prusak

How much time and money is spent seeking “diversity” in our organizations around the world? How much value comes out of these activities?

My answers to those questions are a lot of money and very little .

Now before you think this is going to a political rant, let me assure you that the book we are discussing here, The Difference, by University of Michigan professor Scott Page, is all for diversity, but of a specific kind. Cognitive Diversity is what he is advocating, and he makes a very strong argument for it.

Many of our efforts to be diverse, based on race, gender, age, or some other broad stroke often miss the mark in producing better decisions and outcomes. Page believes that, when “solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction diversity matters as much as ability” Taken seriously, this is quite an inflammatory statement.

Cognitive diversity is based on the “toolbox” each one of us carries with us, built from our individual experiences and education and trainings. Specifically the toolbox contains four “tools”: perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models that we all use every day in every way. All of us have these tools in differing proportions and we all use them somewhat differently. When an organization manages to build teams emphasizing this type of diversity, desired outcomes – better decisions and better innovations – are far more likely.

This is a difficult book to read, despite the author’s humor and clear writing. It is a serious work of social science and an important work for anyone interested in how to better exploit organizational knowledge, using much more sophisticated methods than the very crude and ineffective tools we currently use.

What kind of diversity do you think results in the best decisions?