Arvanitakis on education: Building brave spaces

| November 21, 2020

This week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a number of workshops including one hosted by College of the Canyons’ titled International Forum on Youth and another held at Charles Sturt University titled, Maximising Student Success in a Post COVID world.

While the conferences and workshops where very different, invariable we turned to discussing what skills are required for our students to succeed in our contemporary world beset by partisanship, hostility to intellectualism and universities and an uncertain employment landscape. One ‘soft skill’ everyone agreed was required was the ‘ability to talk to those you cannot agree with.’

It was also a point raised when we talked about the ‘grand challenges’ that future generations must confront.

Such a discussion leads to at least two questions: the first is, how did we get here? That is, what led us to this point when we find it hard to have civil conversations with our political opponents?

The second is, who is to blame? While it is easy to point the finger at social media and the ‘outrage algorithms’, as well as the intolerance and ignorance of our political opponents, we should also contemplate our own fault as educators in perpetuating divisions. In other words, are we failing our students with our own inability to reach across the political aisle and have conversations?

My provocation to my fellow educators is to accept at least some of the responsibility and to reflect on what can do about it.

We want to find common ground

In a ground-breaking report titled, The Hidden Tribes of America, More in Common discuss that while we have never seemed more divided in politics, on cable TV, our Facebook feeds and at the to the family dinner table, most Americans are tired of this “us-versus-them” mindset and are eager to find common ground.

Their study on polarization finds that while many Americans hold dissimilar views on many issues, more than 75 percent believe that the differences aren’t so great that common ground cannot be identified.

Everywhere we look, we see proponents of different political persuasions encouraging intellectual freedom and ‘free speech’. Few argue that free speech comes without some responsibility, but most argue that we should encourage intellectual heterodoxy.

The problem, however, is that these same advocates are quick to attack their opponents for making statements that they disagree with. This is not a left v. right position – it is something that we are all guilty of.

It is this point that makes me wonder if we, as educators, researchers and scholars, have lost the ability to talk to our political opponents without demonising them. Hence my provocation that we should all take some responsibility

Brave spaces not just safe spaces

At education institutes, we need to ensure everyone feels safe. This sense of safety, however, should be accompanied with the powerful educational tool of discomfort.

Discomfort is not about disrespect or being vulgar but is it about allowing ideas we do not agree with into the classroom. It is also about discussing these ideas, not dismissing them.

Another dimension of discomfort is to encourage our students to ask questions that challenge us even if they do so in clumsy ways. Clumsiness is not a crime, rather it should be a teaching moment.

One way for us to think about this is through the lens of ‘brave spaces not just safe spaces.’

What I am arguing here is that it is essential for the future of our democracy that we find ways to ensure diversity and free expression to coexist. In his work on brave spaces, former Vice Dean at Harvard Law School, Phillip Palfrey, argues that free expression and diversity are more compatible than opposed. The strength of our democracy, says Palfrey, depends on a commitment to upholding both diversity and free expression, especially when it is hard.

Three tips…

How do we practically create brave spaces? I would like to offer three tips.

The first is to allow for the abovementioned clumsiness. I have facilitated classes where students have been driven by a deep sense of curiosity to ask questions about complex issues but lack the skills to do so delicately. Rather than attacking them for lacking such subtlety, we should unpack both the concepts and language as part of the learning journey.

The second tip is to move away from intellectual ‘zero sum games.’ Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book, How to be an Antiracist is both an instruction manual and memoir of the author’s own path from anti-black racism to anti-white racism and, finally, to antiracism. This is a critical self-reflection, that outlines that, “antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

This book is challenging and an important reading. What it should not be used for is to create a binary world of ‘racists v. anti-racists’: something that I have seen occur.

Our political discovery is a process and our students need time – and our guidance – to traverse the complexities of race, gender and other such topics: we should never force them to choose.

The third tip is to stop the intellectual social media ‘stacks on’. That is, the tendency to persistently attack and troll those who say something we disagree with. It is like sharks smelling blood: we pile on insult after insult – with the sole purpose of attacking rather than attempting at dialogue. This simply makes us feel better and limits discussions with our students who may have sympathy for the ideas being proposed.

I am not arguing for a world where anything can be said or that all ideas have equal intellectual weight. What I am saying is that we need to stop reproducing the very partisanship we blame others for. Otherwise, nothing will change.