Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Engaged analysis and the role of the educator

Recently I was invited by parents at my children's middle school to join a grassroots parent group to discuss education in general and our own school district in particular.

My views on state control of most institutions are well known, so I was surprised by this invitation.  I have high regard and a great deal of respect for the parent who invited me, so I have attended.

What as most impressed me as been the effort and civility of the parents to digest my point of view.  The group is uniformily in support of public education and on Dan Klein's survey of views toward state involvement would be score close to my colleagues in higher education - particularly those in sociology, the humanities, history or political science.

That said, they repectfully allow me to present my point of view and question my point of view civilly and, in a manner that seems to me to be one of honestly trying to understand my analysis and rationale.

This model reinforces to me the importance of engaged and civil discussion and, more importantly, the need to engage with ideas that confront or challenge those that we hold closely.  It is through this engagement with opposing ideas that beneficial exchange can potentially take place.  This exchange of intellectual capital is a challenge as ideas and the resulting ideology take on the elements of belief.  As belief hards into faith there seems to be a tendency to develop "grid lock" as opposing beliefs battle rather than engage.

Opportunities to develop a higher order level of engagement have been present in the past and, I believe continue to exist.  As a recent book club our group recalled Milton Friedman and his participation in the last century on the Phil Donahue program and how this civil engagement can take place.

I am struck by the willingness of Donahue, an acknowledged modern liberal and interventionist, was willing to provide a stage for an alternative and opposing point of view. Friedman used that stage with respect and, while he did personalize his analysis, he did so with grace and a sense of humor. Most importantly, his analysis engaged with Donahue's question and point of view in a meaningful way, rather than merely judging and dismissing this view. For this, and many other reasons, I consider Friedman and exemplar of a public intellectual and educator working to constructively move an important debate forward. Both he and Hayek argued in a manner that was open, accessible and positive and, consistently avoided the negative, pejorative that all too often characterizes public discourse. The ASET book club is an excellent forum for exploring a wide variety of views and ideas and I hope continues to do so in a positive manner. It is difficulty to restrain from ad hominium and other types of negative reactions when dealing with opposing views, as educators this skill is one we hope to develop in ourselves and our students.

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