RFSD News: Spaces where all ideas and beliefs are truly respected
In part because I attended Middlebury College, I paid close attention to the controversy that ensued last month at that campus over the treatment of conservative scholar Charles Murray and liberal professor Allison Stanger when a group of students violently shut down a speech by Mr. Murray and assaulted Ms. Stanger, who was trying to interview him.
This is only one of many concerning events nationwide — not just on campuses, but also in the news media and halls of Congress — showing that we have lost our ability to engage in reasoned discourse in a democracy, respect dissenting views, and protect the civility and safety of our intellectual commons.
Recently, at one of my morning coffee meetings with community members, a couple of parents came to report examples of what they feel is a pattern of political bias in our schools. I have heard similar reports about many of our school and district activities. I do not believe that taking a strong stand in affirming the rights of targeted minorities, affirming our nondiscrimination policy, or affirming that our schools remain a safe haven for all students and families is necessarily a politically biased position.
However, some of these parents’ examples felt to them like attempts by the school district to influence students’ political beliefs or to predetermine a correct opinion rather than support students in developing their own opinions. I also know how hard educators work to present balanced perspectives and have students consider both sides of an issue. But this conversation still provided an opportunity to reflect.
I am an educator and not above bias. Therefore, I have a special responsibility to monitor my own biases and to examine whether I am unfairly imposing my views on others. We all have that responsibility. I feel like a Little League coach who has been asked to referee a game; if I’m going to be allowed to wear that ref’s jersey, I need to be especially mindful of calling the shots fairly and not giving an advantage to the team I am hoping will win.
Middlebury College faculty created a statement of free inquiry on campus, stating that no group has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain. Similarly, I would say that we, as educators, have no right to arbitrate or limit the opinions of our students. Instead, we should actively teach them how to question and challenge their own and each other’s beliefs in safe and respectful ways, encourage the introduction of more, not fewer, dissenting viewpoints into the classroom and school, and ensure that our circle of belonging includes those whose political views might be disagreeable to us.
In a recent op-ed on the topic, Ms. Stanger made this observation: “The majority of faculty and students are progressive. A small minority are conservative; many of them are in the closet, afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced as reactionary bigots.” Her observation is probably true of schools, not just universities. Because of my own progressive views, I need to be especially aware that I am taking care of my conservative students and colleagues too.
This is challenging stuff, and the boundaries are often unclear. To their credit, these two parents acknowledge that our jobs are tough and said they don’t envy our positions. I asked them for advice moving forward, and think that their suggestions have merit: present both sides; keep assignments relevant; and be mindful of our own biases.
One of the great things about our Roaring Fork community is that people seem to genuinely value differences and to strive to discuss disagreements with more civility than is sometimes being modeled on the national stage. This commitment is based on our ability, individually and collectively, to be open to listening to others’ opinions and concerns and entertain the possibility that we are not always right or that maybe there is not one right answer.
As a school community, we value our diversity. The parents’ feedback, community modeling, and national dialogue have all served as a valuable reminder that, as educators and in our local communities, we must strive to create spaces where all ideas and beliefs are truly respected.
Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.
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