writings and Reflections

Modeling Civil Discourse: The Role of Teachers and Schools in Today’s Cultural & Political Climate
Tara Christie Kinsey

Opening Remarks, August 29, 2016

As we prepare for the opening of school, members of Hewitt’s faculty have asked me for some guidance on how to have conversations with our girls and young women about a variety of difficult topics related to our current cultural and political climate, ranging from the tragedy in Orlando and the Bastille Day attack in France, to the contentious rhetoric surrounding the upcoming presidential election in this country.  More than 40% of teachers in this country report feeling hesitant to teach about the upcoming presidential election. As I gathered my thoughts, I found myself wanting to begin by examining Hewitt’s place in our nation’s history.

Just a few days ago, on Friday, August 26, 2016, our country celebrated Women’s Equality Day to mark that day, 96 years ago, when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted into law, giving women the right to vote. For the Hewitt community, this anniversary is also extremely important. It was exactly 96 years ago that Hewitt was founded by Caroline D. Hewitt, a brave woman who came to America from England by herself on a steam ship in 1895 to fulfill her dream of becoming an educator.

Yet this is more than a milestone in our nation’s–and Hewitt’s–history. Even as I reflect on the historic import of the 19th Amendment that “gave women the right to vote,” I am painfully aware of what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the dangers of a single story”—that lone dominant narrative that is incomplete at best and dangerously misleading at worst. The fact is that the struggle for voting rights continued for women of color until the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And it was 53 years ago, on August 28, 1963, that 200,000 Americans marched on Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, which painted a beautiful future in which civil rights would be enjoyed by all Americans.  

Today’s cultural and political climate carry high voltage, in part, because Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality for all has still not been achieved.  We cannot turn on the television, look at our phones, or open a newspaper without learning of yet another violent verbal or physical conflict involving race, gender, nationality, sexuality, socioeconomics, or religion.  

Our girls and young women will be looking to their teachers and asking them tough questions about how we got here in the first place, what their teachers personally think about the current cultural and political times in which we live, and how we will navigate these stormy seas.

As we prepare to welcome our students back to school, I want to share my thoughts with you, Hewitt’s teachers, about what I believe to be the role of a teacher and a school in such a time. I will begin by admitting that I don’t have any simple answers. And I want to stress that this may be the point.  

In times such as these, I believe that teachers and schools must resist the search for silver-bullet answers.  I believe that teachers should resist the urge to be master deliverers of content, when the content is truly beyond any single one of us to master.  And I believe that the role of the teacher and the school in such a time is to model civil discourse, which is learning at its very best.  

Civil discourse is a space in which we ask questions and wrestle publicly with questions to which we, the adults, do not have all the answers. It is discourse in which diverging opinions – even and especially opinions contrary to those we ourselves hold, opinions which may even make us uncomfortable – are safely expressed, as long as they do not harass or threaten others. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Civil discourse balances civility, mutual respect, and intellectual freedom.  The following excerpt from the now highly publicized letter to this year’s incoming freshman at the University of Chicago describes the role of civil discourse in an educational setting:  

Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

In order for this kind of language not to feel “preachy” to students, I invite all Hewitt faculty members to model how to distinguish between an idea that causes “discomfort” and an idea that “harasses or threatens.” This is a concept that needs to be taught to young people. And it takes great time, care, and collaboration if it is to be done well. Our mission statement, together with our diversity and inclusivity statement, will serve as our litmus test for distinguishing ideas that cause “discomfort” from ideas that “harass or threaten.”

Hewitt empowers girls to discover their full intellectual and creative abilities, to pursue their passions and personal best, and to lead lives of consequence with character, compassion, and conviction. 

Hewitt empowers and expects our community members to embrace multiple points of view, to engage others with empathy and integrity, and to champion equity and justice in all areas of our lives.

I am grateful that Hewitt’s faculty is unanimously committed to modeling the process of asking questions and resisting simple answers, quick sound-bytes, and shortcuts.  For sound-bytes and shortcuts will not get us through these challenging times, and they will not lead to learning and growth. Only a combination of love and intellect will enable us to learn as much as we can from this time in our history. And we are truly lucky to be a part of a school community in which we have both love and intellect in spades.

Hewitt’s leadership team, our newly appointed directors of diversity and inclusivity, our department chairs, our grade level coordinators, our faculty, and I are committed to working side by side with students and their families as we continue this conversation. We look forward to helping our girls and young women engage with and learn from these challenging and historic times.    

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