Dialogue Matters

As educators, we must include the question of dialogue in our philosophy of education.  Otherwise, we are setting ourselves and our students up for failure.  We need to understand that the dialogue that occurs within our individual classrooms is likely to reflect the dialogue that takes place outside the classroom.  If we want our students to do the talking, then we, ourselves, need to examine the kind of talking we experience in our professional conversations with colleagues, administrators, parents and policymakers. Thus, our commitment to understanding and improving our teaching practice must include the commitment to transforming our school climates and improving the quality of our local, state and national dialogue about educational policy.

First and chiefly, we must allow others to speak, especially if we are the ones who hold the power.  Teachers should allow students to speak; administrators should allow teachers to speak; and policymakers should allow all to speak –even if our speech involves the naming of that which must be investigated and transformed (Freire, 1975).

“Dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming –between those who deny other men the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them” (Freire, 1975, pp. 147- 148).

As we have seen, this scenario has been played out in the Canon Debate, which has resulted in a stalemate between the traditionalists and the multiculturalists.  But, this debate is only a sliver when compared with the monolithic problems of the inhumanity and entrenchment which take place on a daily basis in our nation’s conversations about education.

Across the United States, from our national political discourse to the gossip in our teacher’s rooms, our conversations about education have continued to nurture a climate of mistrust and hostility.  The acerbic quality of our dialogue and the selfish pursuit of power for its own sake –especially in individual schools- have, in my view, become the chief obstacles to the progress of our education in our country.  This lack of progress is especially poignant in our nation’s urban schools –a situation, which, due to the lack of access and cultural capital of its students, constitutes a severe national crisis.

We hear a lot of talk about raising standards, closing the achievement gap, ensuring teacher and student accountability and providing equal access, and, to be sure, there are genuine disagreements around these issues.  But, regardless of the substance of our disagreements, we have lost our way as long as we refuse to examine the way we talk to one another and about one another.  Educators and education policy-makers need to commit to improving the nature of our dialogue, if we are to succeed in our quest for an educational system which prepares our young people for participation in 21st century life.   As Freire (1975) reminds us, “without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education” (Freire, 1975, p. 150).

A true education cannot occur in a classroom led by a teacher who is bullied, silenced, intimidated and depressed due to the lack of authentic, caring conversations that should be taking place in her school.  As we have seen, the teacher’s personhood has everything to do with the quality of the education she will provide for her students.  As long as there remains a pattern of institutional cruelty in our schools and school systems, the personhood of our educators, administrators and students will continue to be compromised.  Thus, our educational goals are compromised.

The sheer volume of cases where teachers and administrators are mysteriously “disappeared” from schools due to their reform efforts should remind us that institutional cruelty lies at the heart of what is wrong with our schools.  This cruelty is reflected in the competitive spirit of one-up-man-ship that sometimes arises between our less than compassionate colleagues, and it can be seen in the cold, calculated decisions made by not a few policy-makers and powerful stake-holders who wish to consolidate power rather than enter into dialogical communion with those who seek to provide the best for their students.  The key issue here is a lack of altruism among the principle players in our nation’s educational enterprise.  To put it simply, key decision-maker in schools frequently push back against advocates for reform -not out of genuine disagreement- but because of selfish reasons.

It is reasonable to expect conflict and pushback when educators endeavor to change institutions.  But it is not reasonable to push back out of selfish concerns and out of a need for egocentric victory.  Parker Palmer (2000) notes:

“If our institutions are rigid, it is because our hearts fear change; if they set us in mindless competition with each other, it is because we value victory over all else; if they are heedless of human well-being, it is because something in us is heartless as well” (p. 77).

Freire (1975) implores us to consider our humanity in our dialogue out of a “profound love for the world” and for one another.  He also reminds us that we need to act out of humility rather than arrogance (p. 48), if we are serious about communicating with any degree of authenticity in our conversations.  He poses the questions: “How can I dialogue if I am closed to –and even offended by –the contribution of others?  How can I dialogue if I am afraid of being displaced, the mere possibility causing me torment and weakness?” (Freire, 1975, p. 148)  As education professionals –administrators, social workers and teachers alike- we must ask these questions of ourselves from time to time, if we hope to improve the educational outcomes of our students.

From a renewed commitment to questioning ourselves, entering dialogue, and acting in good faith, we may eventually succeed in making our schools more compassionate, more humane and more productive.  That is, we may come to design education policies which acknowledge and respect our humanity and build school cultures in which we all wish and deserve to thrive.

Conclusion & Bibliography