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Difficult Conversations

Can we all take a moment to just appreciate how great co-ops are? I’ve interacted with so many over the years and the people who run them are so dedicated and benefit their communities so much. They provide low cost flexible options for homeschoolers, they are often the beating heart of social connection for homeschooled students, and they are a source of support and connection for homeschooling parents. And on top of this, the people who create and run them usually do it for free and receive limited recognition. So, here’s to you leaders of co-ops! You are great! The work you do is difficult and sometimes unpleasant and you deserve gratitude and praise for being willing to do it.

And now, while we are speaking of the work of running a co-op being difficult and sometimes unpleasant. I would like to contemplate a specific difficulty co-ops, other homeschool groups, and educational institutions in general face. That is the difficult conversations that can arise when trying to run an educational organization that includes people of differing political, ideological, religious and social views. Over the years I’ve caught wind of conflict within several co-ops as they’ve struggled over these sorts of issues. An example might be how to handle dress codes when people involved in the co-op have differing standards of dress. Another might be what sort of religious or political instruction to include or exclude in curriculum. Another might be how to address students who express ideas or values that lie outside the norm for the group.

On the one hand it may seem surprising that homeschool groups have to deal with these sorts of issues. Many people in the homeschooling world left public education precisely because they didn’t want their children to be caught in the crossfire over adult culture wars. And yet, on the other hand we probably have to question if those difficult questions can actually be avoided in their entirety. A few weeks ago, I read an article that proposed the idea that since education inherently involves expressions of values, conflict is inevitable if people of differing opinions try to share educational institutions. I must admit that I agree with the sentiment, though the magnitude of that conflict can vary based on how well people behave. I’m not so sure, however, that I agree entirely with the conclusion of the article. As a result, the argument continued, society would be best served if people of differing opinions segmented themselves each to their own educational silos where they could pursue education free of the conflict of disagreement.

It seems to me that, while there may be benefits to pursuing education based on some common understandings, that you cannot ultimately escape difficult questions and difficult conversations unless one is committed to an infinite divisibility wherein we retreat to seek out ever smaller communities of precisely like minded people any time difficult questions arise. It’s not a practical solution to seek out people who share your every opinion so as to avoid conflict on all points, and even if it were a practical solution it wouldn’t be a beneficial one. The article essentially posited the idea that people of differing beliefs can’t successfully share educational institutions, and in response I would say that that approach isn’t a great template for education in that it severely limits the scope of a child’s education. And it isn’t a great template for the world either in that the world is not strictly siloed, in the world institutions must be shared among disagreeing parties, and our children who have no preparation for that reality will have to live with the consequences of that lack of preparation.

None of this, of course, makes difficult conversations and decisions in running educational institutions easy. But it does indicate that they are valuable and worth the effort. Accordingly, I would like to offer some principles that can help those conversations along. 

Open Conversations Are Better

First, let it simply be said that organizations cannot exist with no definition of any sort. There have to be standards, rules, requirements for admission, etc. in any educational institution because educational institutions need to foster positive learning environments and all of them have a nature and purpose. Without standards, principles, guidelines etc. born of a vision of what the institution hopes to accomplish, the institution has no real essence.

The practical application of this point is that in order to persist, educational institutions will have to have conversations about what its animating principles are and how they are to be implemented. Important to note is that these conversations can be discussed directly or indirectly. In organizations, indirect conversations can happen in a variety of ways. They can happen through different people enforcing different rules and then seeing which set of rules wins out. Or they could take place through agreeing parties speaking with each other about what should be happening in the organization without bringing the conversation to the larger group. In the worst of cases, it can look like adults in the organization recruiting and working through students to fight indirect conflicts within the organization. None of these are healthy for an educational institution. They sow division, create resentment, and rope students into the conflict, distracting them from their educational pursuits and creating bad feeling among them.

Much better then, to have these conversations in the open and directly, particularly if points of conflict mean that they will be difficult conversations. No one likes difficult conversations, and difficult conversations brought into the open are particularly difficult. But the benefit of open conversation among adults is that it renders damaging (albeit easier) indirect conflict unnecessary. Of most importance, it means that children don’t get caught in the crossfire of angry and resentful adults.

Disagreement Can Be A Strength

When navigating charged issues in an educational setting, it can be easy to envision harmony as the best possible outcome and conflict as an unqualified negative. However there is a great little bit of philosophy in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty which might give us pause on that position. In this passage Mill is arguing against the suppression of ideas and speech in society and specifically why it is important to allow intellectual conflicts to take place in society. He lays out three possible cases in which someone has to hear a contrary opinion because speech is not suppressed. In one case we consider the possibility that the person who will hear the contrary opinion is right on a given point and the contrary opinion is wrong. In this case the person hearing the misguided opinion is still benefited because the interchange gives to that person the opportunity to better understand the intricacies of their own opinion and the arguments surrounding it. They are better prepared to defend it and more appreciative of it over all. Or, as Mill puts it, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

In another case Mill asks us to suppose that the person who has to hear the contrary opinion is misguided and the contrary opinion represents the truth. In this case the benefit is apparent. If the listener can manage to have an open mind and really listen to the contrary opinion, he or she will learn something valuable and will be better off as will society. It can sometimes be difficult to muster the intellectual humility to entertain the possibility that we have something to learn from an opposing viewpoint, but as Mill says of those who cannot muster that humility, “To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty.” In our best moments, we are much more like a student of mine who recently explained to me why he likes having his arguments challenged in our class discussions: “If I’m wrong, I want to know I’m wrong!”

Finally, Mill lays out a case that he believes to be far more frequent (and I tend to agree) than either of the preceding two: that multiple parties involved in a given conflict are partially right. In other words, humans being fallible often have a good but incomplete view of important truths and that is often true of multiple parties in a disagreement. In this case allowing opposing viewpoints to be heard gives all parties the opportunity to consider the value presented in other opinions, and have their own tempered and improved by the good that they find. This is one of the basic ideas of democratic government. That no person is so wise and good as to own society and no person so stupid and awful as to merit automatic exclusion from the levers of power and that in the aggregate society will generally make better decisions than when it relies on the inherent rightness of an elite class.

The practical applications of these principles operate on two levels. The first is within the difficult conversations themselves. In having difficult conversations about what will or will not be allowed or taught in an educational setting, it is important for all parties to have the opportunity to express their thoughts. With issues as emotionally charged as children and education, it can be difficult to foster that environment. Discussion can become heated, people can be tempted to resort to personal attacks or to interpret disagreement as personal attacks, and often it would seem nicer if all would agree or if we could silence those who disagree. But the result would be the silencing of opinions that might very well strengthen our educational institutions in the homeschooling community.

The second practical application is to see the value of disagreement as a guiding principle in these difficult decisions. As education institutions make decisions about their nature, rules, requirements for admissions, etc. they can choose to make that nature more narrow or broad in a variety of ways. There can be religious requirements for an organization or not, curriculum can come from a specific socio-political approach or not, and so forth. More narrow requirements can make cohesion in the group easier to achieve and can reinforce values that the adults want to promote to students and these can be legitimate benefits. But on the other hand very narrow requirements also robs the group of opposing viewpoints and the benefits derived from opposing viewpoints. It can also rob students of the personal growth necessary to navigate disagreement. I had a very satisfying moment a few weeks ago. In this circumstance a student told me how grateful she was to be part of an organization (in this case the Independent Education Program) in which students could legitimately disagree and legitimately still like each other. It takes real personal growth for students to become the sort of people who see those who disagree not as a threat, and not even as just acceptable, but as potential friends and people whose ideas can improve their own. That sort of growth is difficult to achieve in an environment where, by design, students have not had to deal with any substantive opposing views.

People First

If you, then, decide against infinite divisibility and accept or even see it as a benefit that sometimes there will be people and students who disagree within your educational institution, the question is how to navigate that. Every circumstance is unique enough that it may be difficult to lay out a specific road map for specific situations, but I think two principles help make conversations and decisions easier. The first is a commitment to see people as people first and whatever else they are as secondary. When people consistently see the value in each other, it makes pluralism achievable and when people refuse to see the value in each other, then sharing important things (like educational institutions) becomes terribly difficult. When we see value in other people, we try to see the world from their perspective sufficiently that the ultimate goal becomes not total domination of our own position, but rather a path forward that is as fair as possible to all parties.

I think that Dallin H. Oaks put this idea exceptionally well in his address to students at University of Virginia Law School “We have always had to work through serious political conflicts, but today too many approach that task as if their preferred outcome must entirely prevail over all others, even in our pluralistic society......we should not seek total dominance for our own position; we should seek fairness for all.”

The choice to extend an assumption of good faith and a recognition that people who disagree with each other not only have to live with each other but actually need each other and are made better by each other opens paths in difficult conversations which are closed when we see ourselves as fully human but others as mere functions of their religion, politics, ideology, etc. Reducing people to leftists, the religious right, etc. also reduces the chances that a way forward can be found to share institutions and benefit from the opportunities of civil discourse.

Academic Freedom

A second principle that opens more pathways forward that otherwise don’t exist is a stance of academic freedom. Again, every educational institution has to make decisions about what it will be. One of these decisions is the extent to which teachers can or should create official narratives within a classroom. You can think of official narratives as the things that are assumed to be true from the perspective of the teacher. Official narratives can be directed toward student behavior as in

  • Students must treat each other with respect.

  • Learning to do homework is an important part of learning to be a successful student.

  • It is important for students to take responsibility for their learning.

Official narratives can also be directed toward religion, politics, or ideology generally. These sorts of narratives on the one hand can promote values that adults involved see as important, but in exchange they limit academic freedom and make it more difficult for contrary opinions to receive oxygen. It is important to note that it is probably not possible for a classroom to have no ideological narratives as “knowledge is valuable” is an ideological position and classrooms universally operate on at least that principle. But it is equally important to not get forced into a false binary that classrooms must either be devoid of ideology or be a platform to promote to children the teacher or organization’s every thought. In other words, teacher’s and organizations can forbear on many ideological positions and preserve a great deal of academic freedom in the classroom, even if absolute neutrality is out of reach.

So teachers and organizations can see themselves as making tradeoffs. For every issue on which the organization decides to stay neutral it loses the ability to advocate that issue to students and gains the opportunity for students to explore the issue freely and allows for a greater number of people to be a part of the organization, to add their perspective, and to give students the opportunity to learn the work of civil discourse.

In practical terms over and over again, I am grateful that early on the Wasatch Independent Debate League and subsequently the Independent Education Program chose a general stance of viewpoint neutrality. It has enabled us to successfully navigate a great number of conflicts and welcome a great many students into our organization. It has definitely meant that I (and I am sure my other teachers) have had to swallow my opinions in many circumstances, but given the students I’ve gained and the wonderful perspectives, personalities, and opportunities they’ve brought into my classroom, it’s a small price.

Conclusion

If only all people were both in total agreement and totally correct, then running educational institutions would require fewer difficult choices and would include fewer difficult conversations. Unfortunately (or fortunately as you choose to see it) we simply don’t have that option. That being the case, I hope the preceding concepts can offer some useful aid in cases where ideological conflict springs up. And to anyone doing the difficult work of the difficult decisions and conversations, thank you. Someone had to do it, and if you are willing to take part, then I’m grateful.

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