Educators have often been confronted with uncomfortable, and sometimes life-changing questions: When is it acceptable to take a controversial stand? When is it imperative? When should we follow a community consensus and when must we lead in opposition to community norms? On which issues do leaders rise, even when the threat of doing so is real?
A few short decades ago, educators, along with many others, struggled with our roles with respect to issues of civil and gender rights. Across the country, from the rural Deep South to the urban northeast, classroom discussions about the rights of minorities and women often left a wake of anger, complaints to the school board, and firings of those who took a stand in opposition to community standards that were slow to evolve. There are still pockets in America today where even these basic civil rights are seen as too controversial to be raised in public schools.
Yet because of courageous leaders in the past, we now have tangible, real support for racial and gender equity. We begin to see the turning of the tide towards civil rights for students of different sexual orientations. Educators take these positions because their moral compasses tell them what is right, and many are willing to show leadership, even during the early evolution of community mores when such leadership can be uncomfortable.
Last week, three national leaders, representing very different points on the political spectrum, rose to speak powerfully in support of a set of American ideals that are under real threat. I think that these threats are every bit as dire to the American Experiment as those of racial and gender equity, and trust in our government, that we faced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and still are fighting today. Past presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama, and Sen. John McCain, representing perhaps the middle 80% of the American political spectrum, each in his own way, argued forcefully last week for an America based on pluralism, diversity, hope, empathy, discourse, and both engagement with, and leadership in, the world. They argued forcefully against the forces of division, fear, bigotry, isolation, and bullying that have so quickly become acceptable in America.
I think real leaders in education have to join Bush, Obama, McCain and others; if those three can find such powerful common ground, then that ground is firm enough for others like us to stand upon. Leadership is not about political positions. Leadership is about moral decisions. Many of our American educational “ancestors” took moral decisions when they rallied around the idea that every child, regardless of the color of their skin or their gender, has the right to an equal education. We have not fully realized those ideals, but we are much closer than we used to be.
The issues that Bush, Obama, and McCain raised last week are every bit as critical to the future of our country and the world. As in the past, these issues have strong political overtones. The Bush, Obama, and McCain speeches did not ask us to agree politically; they were a repudiation of the politics of nativist, isolationsist nationalism. A stand for the American ideals in these three speeches will inevitably be seen as political, and in many communities, taking a political stand is forbidden of our educational leaders. Yet such was the case decades ago when the notions of racial and gender equality were highly political issues. Remember, millions of Americans voted for George Wallace, a powerful, self-avowed racist, for president in 1968.
Preservation of an America based on civil discourse, rational thought, provable facts, diversity, empathy, and global engagement is every bit as critical to our future as was the evolution of an America based on universal civil rights. This is a line in the sand, and those lines are the points from which leaders lead. They are the points that we look back at years and decades down the road and ask ourselves, “could I have done more? Should I have done more?” Maybe showing students these three speeches and engaging a discussion about their themes would be a courageous first step.
Leading is uncomfortable. Writing this blog is uncomfortable, because I know that some will profoundly disagree with me, and no one likes to disappoint a friend or a colleague. We like to think that education should be above this fray. I could not disagree more. We should lead in this fray, as others have done before us.