On Honest and Civil Conversation (Simmer Down Now)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

The first audience reaction to my speech at the Network for Public Education came from a older, burly white man with big hands and a soft voice. Not that any of this scares me much since I’m from the hood, but context matters.

“Jose, I’m glad you’re here and I appreciate what you had to say today, but, when you referred to Tea Party people as subhuman …”

Whoa, what?

“No, that’s not what I said,” as I furled my eyebrows. “I said that Tea Partiers look at many of us [read: people of color, women, people who identify as LGBT …] as subhuman, and that’s the thing …”

“OK, I get you. I just wanted to make sure because you need to be careful not to insult others. Once we start insulting people, then that becomes a problem …”

I tried to wrap up the conversation and say “Thank you” before getting smiles and hugs from the people of color in the audience, many of whom have had to deal firsthand with activists within the same supposed umbrella disavowing social justice in favor of alliance along single-issue lines like student privacy and Common Core State Standards. Before my comments on the panel, I thought it obvious that a group committed to social justice would include discussions on race, class, and gender, which would force those who sought allies within said group to have a better grounding on these issues, and their accompanying -isms.

My bad.

So when Peter Cunningham dropped this post on his new education website, I laughed, not because I disagreed with him. I don’t know much about him except that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan congratulated him on having a new website. Because vitriol seems to do well when talking education politics, and triggering language is the modus operandi of current edu-dialogue outside of the faux-halcyon digi-hallways of ed-tech. Education is constantly in crisis because, without crisis, people who aren’t currently parents of school-aged children, teachers, and students can’t possibly have an opinion on it.

Really, no matter what side you look at things from in education reform, there’s a model for “honest dialogue” and a hundred other folks willing to carbon copy their whole style with their own flavor to it. We play to crowds, portend allegiance, retweet and rewrite the same messages, and hero-worship with no critical thought. We protect folks who want to jump in mouth first before even trying to build a relationship, allowing snark and sarcasm to get in the way of having any substantive conversation.

And all of this is OK because, well, we agree on something, whatever that one thing is, and that’s what matters, right?

I learned from these and so many other experiences that, as a person of color, unity and solidarity are trifling if not done well. As a teacher, and often the only educator on any given panel (and the only person of color and the only …), it’s wholly dishonest to say the solution to education policy is solely conversation. Rarely do people talk pedagogy and content (#1 and #2 respectively). These rooms filled to the ceiling in education researchers, journalists, policy wonks, and other interested folk who just happen to have friends who have friends know exactly what’s good for those of us in classrooms every day. Then again, those of us in classrooms with voices rarely talk about what happens in our classrooms, feeling like we need to battle against a metaphorical league of shadows, a fight systemically designed for us to lose individually.

None of this will move the speeding train that is Peter Cunningham’s new voice blog.

I do know that, despite the back and forth bickering I often filter out, I have class tomorrow. Every year, I hope I’m a better teacher than I was a worse teacher, and approaching 100% great is my goal. I looked at my data report and didn’t care much about it until I saw my students’ individual scores. Then I got happy. Then I got pissed. Then I gasped. Then I got back to making my classroom the neatest I could without a treasure trove of borders and decals in my closet.

All of this informs my writing, too. Then again, I demand much more nuance in my telling of events than almost every education blog out there. The problem for Cunningham and for everyone else talking education reform is whether effective listening is a part of their repertoire. If not, then there’s no point in me reading.

Besides, the web site looks off. Even with my 15-inch screen, I still have to scroll to the right to see the full picture. Then I notice nothing’s there.