Dialogue in an Age of Fear

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Dialogue—which depends on the free exchange of ideas—is a preferred pedagogical practice at Waynflete.  The practice derives directly from our mission, which proclaims diversity—including exposure to a diversity of ideas—as “one of the conditions of excellence for our school.”  Dialogue among a diverse group requires participants to listen deeply, pushing them to consider perspectives beyond what they think they already know.  It also requires participants to articulate their ideas to an audience of deep listeners, pushing them to flesh out and formulate their ideas precisely.  Thus, a lively dialogue among diverse participants deepens learning and stimulates growth, aiding our students in their long journeys to figure out who they are and what they believe.  

Because dialogue is essential to the Waynflete experience, to find that any segment of the student body is being systematically excluded from the dialogue at school would be of concern.  That is why an article written earlier in the fall by Henry Wasserman ‘18 for the student newspaper, The Waynflete Flyer, caught my attention.  In it he asked whether or not politically conservative students have a voice at Waynflete, which, he pointed out, was described in the Urban Dictionary as a “liberal minded hippie school.”  

Even though, as Henry also noted, “certain members of the faculty would be happy to argue against” that characterization of the School (including myself), there is ample evidence that the student body does lean to the political left.  One need look no further than the the results of the straw polls we conduct during major elections.  Paul Lepage, Mitt Romney, and John McCain all drew less than 15% of the student vote as did opposition to the Marriage Equality Act.  

Thus, Henry’s question is a fair and important one. He sought to answer it by interviewing several students, but in the end, his piece was inconclusive.  The students he interviewed concurred that Waynflete is a liberal-leaning school but did not express consensus on whether or not that posed a problem.

To explore that question further, I invited students who see themselves as politically conservative to talk with me.  The group that assembled affirmed that some of their ideas go unspoken because they fear rejection by peers and even teachers.  It turned out that one student, Liv Hintlian ‘16, who had entered high school in the fall of 2012 during the run up to the presidential election, had made learning to express her more conservative views in a liberal setting the focus of her college essay.  In it, she describes a formative moment in a history class when she and her classmates leaned into a controversial topic, pushed past the initial, hysterical name-calling, opened themselves up to the possibility of being wrong, and ultimately “enjoy(ed) a real exchange of ideas.”

As a result, Liv said “the class became much more interesting,” and she became committed to speaking up:

“In learning to speak up, I challenged my belief that I couldn’t or shouldn’t share my opinions. I also learned to question the ideas of others and, more importantly, to have my viewpoint challenged. I allowed others to help me grow and  welcomed the idea that sharing what I thought could mean gaining true respect from my classmates.”

With her permission, I have linked Liv’s essay here.

The challenge for the School that Liv’s story illuminates is not limited to including politically conservative viewpoints in our discussions.  I know of students who are uncomfortable expressing their religious beliefs at school.  In an essay he submitted in my class a couple of years ago, Abukar Adan ‘13 described the ethos of Waynflete and its  positive effect on him:

“What makes Waynflete a unique place is the tolerance that permeates our hallways coupled with the encouragement of students and faculty alike to be independent thinkers. Often, the school has forced me to consider an issue in a new light. As a freshman, discussions with my seminar group, assemblies, and conversations in homeroom lunches gave me information I never would have considered before; consequently, my perspective has grown.”

After elaborating on how the ethic of tolerance had stretched him, Abukar went on to describe an unsettling experience at Waynflete when the religious values he had been taught at home came into conflict with what he was being asked to do in school.  With his permission, I have linked Abukar’s essay here.  

Further, the challenge of truly embracing the free exchange of ideas is not limited to including conservative perspectives in a generally liberal school.  I recently met with two students about a bulletin board that they are creating to educate  their peers about the Black Lives Matter cause.  Having engaged students and adults in discussions of race before, I know how easy it is, even for the most politically liberal among us, to deflect, minimize, or even reject ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, or, ironically, illiberal.  Given that, I am wondering what kind of reception these girls will encounter from their effort to educate their peers.

My wonder is heightened given the fearful times in which we live.  As I write, we are gripped by fear in the aftermath of the release of a video in Chicago of yet another police shooting of a black teenager, the news of five Black Lives Matter protesters being shot in Minneapolis (apparently by white supremacists), and the Paris bombings, which have left people worldwide fearing further attacks and Muslims bracing for the ensuing backlash.  

We have, of course, experienced fearful times before.  In my 25 years as the Upper School Director at Waynflete, I have not made any decision that attracted a more vocal objection than when I invited Peter Cianchette to speak at an Upper School assembly in the fall of 2004.  At the time, Mr. Cianchette, who had been the Republican nominee for governor in 2002, was the Maine General Chairman of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign.  When I invited him to speak, I was certainly aware that emotions were running high around the presidential election because of the Iraq invasion and the fact that, by the fall of 2004, there was no end to the conflict in sight.   

In fact, that is why I invited him.  I wanted our students to hear another perspective.  While many expressed support for hosting such a high profile speaker at such an important time in our nation’s history, I also received an onslaught of heated objections.  One critic even accused me of inviting a war criminal to brainwash the students.  We went ahead with the assembly, and there was not, to my knowledge, an ensuing spike in war-mongering behavior among Waynflete graduates.

While a forceful demand to shut down dialogue such as that one may seem extreme in retrospect, one need to tune in only casually to the political discourse—or lack thereof—in this country right now to see the toxic effect that fear can have on the free exchange of ideas.  Think of how different this election cycle would be if we came to know the candidates through presidential dialogues intended to illuminate the complex issues of the day instead of debates where screaming is considered speech, listening is considered weakness, and the aim is to win.  As an educator, I cringe at the status quo.  As a citizen, I despair.

The current exhibit in the Waynflete art gallery – Portraits of Courageous Citizenship – reminds us of the power of individuals to make a real difference in the world.  I am encouraged when I witness our students (such as Henry and Liv and Abukar and the girls seeking to educate their peers about Black Lives Matter and many others) finding their voices by leaning into discomfort with open minds.  Their stories illustrate the dynamic power of mutually respectful dialogue to drive the learning and the personal growth that we at Waynflete believe are necessary for developing the kind of engaged, courageous, and thoughtful global citizens that the world so desperately needs.  

Perhaps someday portraits of some of our graduates will be used to inspire others.  In any case, because listening up and speaking out are essential to the Waynflete experience, it is imperative that the School maintains an unwavering commitment to diversity, dialogue, and the free exchange of ideas.    Especially in such fearful times as ours.