The Education Conference as Epiphany

For starters, given that I was asked (in both cases) to model respectful discourse across the right-left divide, I found it odd that each session began with me forced to sit through close to half an hour of politicized progressive cant.

The higher ed thing started with encouragement to stand together against those narrow-minded right-wingers who mindlessly hate higher education and want to gut DEI. The December 5 congressional hearing in which the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and UPenn showed themselves to be lawyered-up hypocrites was mentioned, but not as an embarrassment for higher ed. Rather, it was evidence of the right’s devious, vicious agenda. Talk about an ironic prelude to a session nominally devoted to understanding the crisis of public confidence in higher ed.

The state gathering featured the state chief turning a scheduled three-minute introduction into 20 minutes of campaign-style histrionics. Parental concerns about schools cutting them out of the loop regarding their kids’ gender identity? Just a matter of “anti-LGBT+” bigotry. Parents expressing opposition to elementary school libraries stocking potentially pornographic materials? Just more right-wing “book banning.” He didn’t get around to chronic absenteeism, chaotic classrooms, or dismal student achievement, but he did make time to brag about increased spending. By the time the warm-ups had ridden roughshod over their theoretically tightly scripted schedule, our session (billed at 60 minutes when they’d asked me to fly out) wound up running a terse 26 minutes. If I was part of the gang, I might’ve laughed all this off. As someone conscious throughout of being an outsider, it all seemed to send a clear but subtle and—I’m fairly sure—unintended message.

In both convenings, I felt less like I was at a big-tent gathering of educators than that I was crashing a local Democratic Party meet-up. There wasn’t even a token bit of right-friendly rhetoric: nary a “liberty,” “belt-tightening,” “personal responsibility,” “rigor,” or “reasonable people will disagree about these things” to be found among the welcoming blather. And yet the organizers of each affair went out of their way to tell me that they had right-leaning members in attendance, wanted to ensure that those members felt valued and heard, and expressed their intention to demonstrate what it looks like to help members lead in these polarized times.

All of which left me confused. Did they not recognize how political all this opening jabber felt? Did they deem these opening remarks pro forma, as if sharing left-wing talking points at an education convening is like singing the Star-Spangled Banner before a big game? Did they imagine that conservative concerns are so manifestly insincere that even right-wingers don’t really believe them? In any event, it was discomfiting. It was rather as if I had launched one of the common ground dinners I host—with guests from the teacher unions, Biden appointees, and such—by asking a Trump apologist to toss out 15 or 20 minutes of right-wing red meat.

For starters, given that I was asked (in both cases) to model respectful discourse across the right-left divide, I found it odd that each session began with me forced to sit through close to half an hour of politicized progressive cant.

The higher ed thing started with encouragement to stand together against those narrow-minded right-wingers who mindlessly hate higher education and want to gut DEI. The December 5 congressional hearing in which the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and UPenn showed themselves to be lawyered-up hypocrites was mentioned, but not as an embarrassment for higher ed. Rather, it was evidence of the right’s devious, vicious agenda. Talk about an ironic prelude to a session nominally devoted to understanding the crisis of public confidence in higher ed.

The state gathering featured the state chief turning a scheduled three-minute introduction into 20 minutes of campaign-style histrionics. Parental concerns about schools cutting them out of the loop regarding their kids’ gender identity? Just a matter of “anti-LGBT+” bigotry. Parents expressing opposition to elementary school libraries stocking potentially pornographic materials? Just more right-wing “book banning.” He didn’t get around to chronic absenteeism, chaotic classrooms, or dismal student achievement, but he did make time to brag about increased spending. By the time the warm-ups had ridden roughshod over their theoretically tightly scripted schedule, our session (billed at 60 minutes when they’d asked me to fly out) wound up running a terse 26 minutes. If I was part of the gang, I might’ve laughed all this off. As someone conscious throughout of being an outsider, it all seemed to send a clear but subtle and—I’m fairly sure—unintended message.

In both convenings, I felt less like I was at a big-tent gathering of educators than that I was crashing a local Democratic Party meet-up. There wasn’t even a token bit of right-friendly rhetoric: nary a “liberty,” “belt-tightening,” “personal responsibility,” “rigor,” or “reasonable people will disagree about these things” to be found among the welcoming blather. And yet the organizers of each affair went out of their way to tell me that they had right-leaning members in attendance, wanted to ensure that those members felt valued and heard, and expressed their intention to demonstrate what it looks like to help members lead in these polarized times.

All of which left me confused. Did they not recognize how political all this opening jabber felt? Did they deem these opening remarks pro forma, as if sharing left-wing talking points at an education convening is like singing the Star-Spangled Banner before a big game? Did they imagine that conservative concerns are so manifestly insincere that even right-wingers don’t really believe them? In any event, it was discomfiting. It was rather as if I had launched one of the common ground dinners I host—with guests from the teacher unions, Biden appointees, and such—by asking a Trump apologist to toss out 15 or 20 minutes of right-wing red meat.

, The Education Conference as Epiphany

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