What does it mean to teach civil dialogue today, when the leaders of democratic society aren’t modeling it? When many children of immigrants are living in terror of deportation ripping their families apart? When students in cafeterias and on athletic fields across the country have adopted “build a wall!” as a handy taunt, and often teachers and parents don’t know how to respond? When we lack the language of social responsibility and trust in human community?
In many schools, administrators have attempted to protect students and teachers from confusion and conflict by prohibiting political discussion, declaring schools safe zones from controversy. So, the place where students are educated for thinking through hard things, for exchange across differences, comparing, interpreting, re-evaluating, questioning, is not the place where they are processing the complex ideas and events that the world around them presents.
When I was in high school in the 80’s, those of my classmates who knew about the wars in Central America said the U.S. was right to support death squads to prevent the rise of Communism. I knew refugees from Central America who had fled the death squads, and I didn’t know how to disagree with my classmates without disliking them. I needed to dig into questions of U.S. policy, ethics, and human rights with my teachers and peers, not to change anyone’s position or solidify my own, but to recognize that these questions mattered. Instead, we continued learning equations and reading Shakespeare; my teachers’ silence on political issues told me that these issues didn’t matter to the school. I looked outside of school for the hard conversations I needed to have to feel I was engaging with real life. I wish my school had encouraged us to question authority, to challenge our assumptions, to engage complexity.
When we simply avoid controversial discussions, we drive complexity underground temporarily, ensuring that it will burst out in moments and contexts of stress. Abandoning students to handle these hard moments without adult support and guidance is unethical.
Yet, controversy also has the potential to generate better thinking and learning. Controversy creates a powerful filter: everything shifts when it surfaces in a room, whether in the form of a direct lesson on immigration policy or because a hallway snub has spilled over into the classroom. When people sense the possibility of a controversy, they become more alert, more focused. The air becomes a little electric. There is potential in these moments for deep, true learning:
Despite its sometimes uncomfortable presence, conflict is both unavoidable and potentially beneficial. Controversial discussion adds energy and motivation to the classroom; heightens awareness and increases student engagement, and gives us as instructors opportunities to encourage the development of critical thinking skills and potentially new solutions to societal issues (Landis, ed., 2008, p. 32: this and other helpful resources can be found at this link: Conflict/Civil discourse/Controversial issues: Teaching Resources).
In the classroom, conflict is often ignored or pushed down: it threatens to push things out of control. Teachers worry, “What if I don’t have a good answer, a helpful response? What if I fall in this pit that has suddenly appeared? What if I can’t climb out, let alone help my students out of it?!”
There’s an opportunity here for adults to recognize we don’t have the answers, to embrace the process of growing. We can model something very authentic for students – not just how do we make sense of things, but how do we deal with the things we can’t make sense of?
Sometimes it’s ok that we don’t know. Students often have the answers we are seeking, if we listen.
The other day I was at a gathering of Midwestern educators, discussing social justice education in today’s fraught political context. Olivia, a high school Junior, described a project she leads, raising awareness about Syria and supporting refugees. Together with student leaders of the Latino Students’ Club and the Muslim Students’ Club, she organized a lunchtime discussion for any high school students who wanted to come. The event was called “#NoBanNoWall.” A teacher listening to her presentation asked Olivia, “what about students who support a wall? How did they feel about this discussion?” Olivia answered, “I kept my focus on my own reasons for being there, for having the discussion; I kept what I said ‘I-centered.’”
Olivia’s response may come across as self-absorbed. But to me, and I think to the other teachers in the room, her words illuminated a sturdy path through difficult territory. By keeping focused on her own goals for the dialogue, Olivia overcame a common pitfall in controversial discussions: the attempt to convince, correct, change another person. For Olivia, the goal of the dialogue was the dialogue itself. Her intention was that people would have a chance to explore and express what they feel and hear what others feel. It wasn’t to convert anyone.
This, I think, is civil dialogue: in Olivia’s telling of it, the discussion of a charged subject was an opportunity to be more conscious, to notice her own responses to others, and reflect. I want to stress the humility inherent in this frame. Olivia was not trying to change others, but to see how she might evolve herself as she listened to others. The more difference in the room, the greater the opportunity for her own growth. She came out of the dialogue with new perspectives and deeper commitments.
I am continually humbled by the complex range of feelings and stories that unfold when people lean in and explore their differences. I believe that democratic life is never so real and powerful as when people are engaged in conversations across differences. Tension, conflict, and discomfort are vital opportunities: they have the capacity to separate people, but when understood in a context of relational learning, they can heighten consciousness. Engaging difference jars complacency and provokes hard questions.
The frame for dialogue matters. If communication is seen only as a way to make a point or effect a desired result, the possibilities for relationship and change are limited. If the dialogue is understood as the goal in itself; if people can welcome difference as a source of community power and as an opportunity for personal learning, limits fall away. People who feel encouraged to explore what is important to them and who they are have access to richer thinking and stronger human connections.
Engaging difficult discussions, we are challenged to be more intentional and focused than in routine communication. We slow down and learn to be more attuned to non-verbal dimensions of the conversation: we learn from our own bodies’ responses and we remember to breathe. This deep engagement can make the most difficult conversations restorative.