HGSE Faculty Discuss Political Polarization in Education at Ed School | News


Four Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members discussed the increasingly prominent role of politics in education during an event Tuesday evening.

The Askwith Education Forum hosted the event, which was titled “K-12 Education in Polarized Times: How Educators Can Navigate Divisions While Sustaining Education’s Mission.” The panel featured professors Meira Levinson, Paul Reville, and senior lecturer Jennifer P. Cheatham.

Irvin L. Scott, another senior lecturer at HGSE who moderated the discussion, said book bans and censorship, conflicts at school board meetings, and increasing levels of media attention were evidence of growing divisiveness in today’s educational landscape, adding that educators can work to alleviate political disputes.

“What can we do as educators to navigate our sector forward, to engage students and families in ways to help bridge divides?” Scott asked.

Reville said tensions in today’s political climate are exacerbated by social media platforms and news outlets, pointing to sex education, gender identity, and reading materials as specific points of contention. He also highlighted the increased defensiveness between political factions as due in large part to fear.

“There’s this sense of fear and threat that my way of life is actually under attack, and that if I don’t mount this battle and mount it vigorously, I’m likely to lose my way of life,” Reville said.

According to Reville, the key to rectifying these divisions is practicing empathy. He described an exercise in which he asked his students to engage in conversations with people possessing alternative viewpoints, describing it as an “eye-opening experience.”

“We’ve got a deficit of empathy, we’ve got a deficit of understanding,” he added, emphasizing the need to “develop mechanisms for understanding from another perspective.”

Cheatham said while those in educational leadership positions are often under-equipped to handle political issues, they must learn to tackle conflicts at the individual level, as well as in the realm of local, state, and federal policies. She also highlighted the importance of having open conversations and developing strong interpersonal relationships.

“We don’t teach that to education leaders enough,” she said. “Understanding not just who the players are, but what their interests are, what are their real hopes and fears.”

Levinson highlighted the ethical dilemmas that educators often confront when faced with politically charged decisions, adding that teachers risk losing their jobs, being persecuted in-person or on social media, and putting themselves or their family members in danger when teaching controversial material.

“Am I going to teach this topic, use this book, raise this theory, challenge that comment, elevate that identity?” Levinson said. “Or am I actually going to protect myself so that I can be here another day?”

Speaking about his work as founder of the EdRedesign Lab, a program focused on child wellbeing, Reville stressed the importance of bringing various stakeholders together — including schools, organizations, and residents — to tackle concrete issues within neighborhoods.

“We have people to the right of Donald Trump on the board, people on the far progressive left, but we work on mixed income housing, we work on education, we work on healthcare, we work on economic development,” Reville said in reference to another organization in which he serves on board.

Cheatham urged leaders to prioritize student voices, emphasizing that students are often the ones grappling with social and political issues on a personal level.

“We absolutely need to be listening to the young people about what they need to have dignity in their schools and in the classroom,” she said.

Levinson added students face a “profound sense of physical threat,” citing bullying, suicide, and other instances of emotional and physical violence. The panelists specifically recognized Nex Benedict, a sixteen-year-old non-binary student from Oklahoma who died early this month after a physical altercation at their high school.

“This, in many ways, is a life and death situation,” Scott said in closing. “I wanted to make sure their name was in this space tonight as a way of grounding us all.”

—Staff writer Katie B. Tian can be reached at [email protected].

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