Talking to Conservatives



I don’t know how to talk to conservatives.

Whew. That was a hard confession but it takes a weight off my shoulders that I can now kick around and try to figure out.

Having been raised by the oldest of ten children and born with a thread of gregariousness hard-wired into my DNA, I’ll talk to anyone. I’ve talked to people while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk because why not? I compliment strangers on their shoes and do that thing where, if you’re wearing a nametag, I’m going to use your name if we talk.

I spend entirely too much time talking to strangers via Twitter and laugh the laugh of the obscene when I get feedback in which one of those strangers think I’m cold or stand-offish. I blame the two-dimensional medium of talking in 140 bursts for that. So, despite my habit of sometimes doing Twitter badly, I generally feel there’s more gained by talking to people than not.

I’m not an extrovert per se more of a “life is so weird and if we only get one shot at this, I wanna make it as pleasant and interesting as possible” variety of human. Sometimes idle chatter with strangers can do that. (Sometimes not talking can do that. It’s a fine line.) When that person, though, presents an idea or mindset that is the polar opposite of my own, I struggle to do more than compliment their shoes. Even my metacognitive strategies fail me.

A few years back, I attended a conference on systems thinking and in the midst of work around feedback loops, inputs, outputs, and behaviors over time graphs, I stubbed my brain. I lost my ability to speak and could only gesture weakly towards the other people in my mapping group.

One of the facilitators saw my reaction and sat beside me. “You’re holding too tight,” she said. “Imagine you’re helping a friend rappel down the side of a cliff. Your job isn’t to grab the safety rope and stop her descent. That would hurt both of you.” I think I nodded, trying my best with my broken brain to stay with her. “Instead, you need to let the rope pass through your hands, holding tight enough to slow her fall but loose enough that the rope barely brushes your hands and she progresses safely. Treat each idea here today like that. Let it pass through your mind just like that rope through your hands. Don’t worry about grabbing tightly. When you’re ready to think deeply about an idea or concept, when it makes sense, you’ll feel your friend’s feet hit the ground safely.”

Learning scientists may disagree with that analogy but it sure as heck worked for me in that setting. I felt when an idea went thump as it landed and when it didn’t, I let the rope keep slipping, holding just tight enough to feel it pass by. I got better at saying to my group members, “I’m still working on that. Can you tell me more about it?” I left with a clear understanding of what I mastered and what I still needed to throw off a cliff a few more times before I got the safe landing that means deep, accurate understanding. I still remind myself of the analogy when I encounter something unfamiliar and feel the first tingles of rope burn because I’m trying to stop something that’s not yet in a safe landing place. Just because I don’t understand something now, it doesn’t mean I can’t eventually work through it.

So, this morning, I read this by Robert Pondiscio and wanted to throw it off a literal cliff. I noticed the image of a white woman to represent the “left”, Hess describing the generic conservative reformer using male pronouns, and the repeated use of the phrase “social justice warrior ” which has a history methinks the speakers aren’t aware of. Part of me wanted to accidently forget to clip in the safety rope and listen for the ker-splat.

In truth, I did feel a thunk and figured I owed it to this concept of public education that I hold so dear to take a beat and figure out what the thunk was. To my chagrin, the thunk was the hollow ring of stereotyping. Despite my willingness to make small talk with all sorts of folks, my understanding of conservatives comes from the media. When it comes to school reform and the faces I associate with conservationism – ie. white men of a certain age and income bracket –  I’m skewed by my hobby. Doing research at night and on weekends has me deep in the dusty pages of history in which white male reformers, with the best of intentions, offer a solution to a profession that is, depending on the date, anywhere from 60% to 89% female. I know that reform isn’t all good or all bad and that there’s a long history of female reformers with bad ideas and male teachers with good ones. I spent entirely too long talking to my entirely too patient non-educator husband about it for the latest episode of our podcast.

However, it’s hard to read a text with one part of your brain trying to actively avoid stereotyping while the other part of your brain is reading statements and thinking, “that sounds racist”, “this feel sexist.” My sense was becoming that conservatives think progressive reformers can’t walk and chew gum. That we can’t talk about racism and sexism and teaching and learning. I can’t know, though, if that’s what they think without talking to them.

So back to the beginning of the text. On the second pass, I read it closely, looking for a quote I could connect with, not push back against. Right there in the 9th paragraph, I found one from a reformer who identifies as politically independent: “I’d hate to lose the next [conservative reformer] because people believe you can’t be [progressive] and also be a pragmatist who can make alliances and get victories.”

I so get that! I’m pragmatic! I’m a vegetarian butcher when it comes to assessment design! Wahoo! Common ground!

A connection means I can free up brain space to ask questions and consider their implications. Take 1: What is the thing that conservatives think they bring to the work of school reform that we liberal progressives are missing? I see the concern around groupthink. I kinda wish there’d been a woman or a man of color at the table for the Committee of Ten to raise some concerns but eh… what’s done is done. If odds are good progressives and conservatives have more in common than not, is the concern we can’t get changes made without you? And that’s mighty hostile of you, Jennifer. Dial that back a notch.

Take 2: Is there a fear we’re not pragmatic enough? That we won’t get things done and need a strong, guiding, dare I say, paternalistic hand to guide us? My sword is in the shop at the moment but that might be the social justice warrior in me speaking. Maybe it’s that progressives have an air of holier than thou and we need a translator in the world of school reform between … which wow, holy mean, Batman. That’s a dead end for discourse if ever I’ve offered one. 

Take 3: If you see it as a “drift”, what’s the center point? And how far back are you looking? Teacher evaluation, merit pay – neither new nor unique. This group of conservative reformers who worked with Republican governors to make it happen are bringing up ideas their foreparents had and implemented with varying degrees of success. This thread feels comfortable, not unkind or stereotypical.

From that question came a possible entry point into a conversation. My hunch is that the “drift” is actually pushback from those in the ranks in a form that is fundamentally different any other previous period of reform. For generations, teachers weren’t even at the table. And if they were, they were likely on the fast track to becoming a schoolman.

My thinking is that I’m OK with the profession doing a bit of knee and elbow-spreading and taking up more space while they get familiar with the new view. It seems like a small price to pay to edge out conservative voices for a bit while social justice advocates find stable footing. More to the point, today’s classrooms are overwhelmingly staffed by women who experienced second and third wave feminism (flawed in its own way, especially as it relates to white, female teachers) which means speaking up in a way that’s different than previous generations of women.  Oh dear. I suspect this is me being all progressive and liberal and feministy which means I’ve set up any conversation as a sparring match and that’s no good.

Questions aren’t working. Back to the text and the concerns raised at the end. I think I get what’s being said. The “risks” you listed helped me realize where to start when we end up at crosswalk together.

And then I see it. The entry point lies that within this quote: “If [progressives] are convincing themselves that to be conservative means not caring about the disadvantaged, then they don’t understand conservatism.” That speaker is right. I don’t understand conservatism.

Hey, Robert, nice shoes. So, in your opinion,

when it comes to school reform, what makes a conservative reformer different than a progressive reformer?

Clean. Simple. Left unanswered by the text. Mostly un-discussed in the meeting halls of the social justice warriors. Huh. Maybe I can talk to conservatives.


5 thoughts on “Talking to Conservatives”

  1. This is a brilliant analysis and articulates so clearly the struggle I feel as a *gasp* social justice warrior. Excuse me while I sharpen my sword…

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