Blog Post

Reflecting on Dialogue & Difference: Implications for How we Teach & Learn

Trout Lake reflecting the mountains in Yellowstone National Park

It is 9 am, Tuesday, and the coffee shop in the college town of Northampton, Massachusetts is bubbling with energetic conversations about current American politics. After almost two weeks in Montana and Wyoming, inside the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, I am back in my own blue bubble: urban, liberal, coastal. In my short visits to use wifi, shop, and socialize in the 800 person town of Gardiner, MT, while in the bars, shops, restaurants, I never heard a single thing about the election; I heard mostly my own self-censure, including the responsibility to keep commentary on the ecology research I was briefly involved with at a cognizant minimum. Someone like myself is an intellectual and cultural minority in the hardy, rural expanses of the West. 

I will not cite the various figures from the recent election supporting the claim that my recent lived experience is not unique to me and that people don't talk with others outside their bubbles. Here instead, based on my experience as a lone outsider in both a regional culture and an academic culture (wildlife biology), I am interested instead in wondering: What is dialogue as a political and educational strategy, and/or social movement? And how might dialogue in particular support access to diversity, or access to diverse points of view that are given equal status? 

To my current mind, I hazard that social opposition, which seems to be more common than dialogue, is vocal, but not it is not dialogue; it is demands, and does not easily compromise; it can be silent or loud, physical or mental, but it is a unilateral stance; it is what people do in groups and on events or occasions (however impromptu), less so what they do individually and in mundane interactions with others. This is not to say that opposition cannot be carried out by one person and in a plethora of unique and innovative ways. But it is to say that opposition inherently implies important contrasts with dialogue, which is defined more as being dialogic, mutual, vulnerable, co-constructed, exchange-based, micro. In fact even though the dictionary says it can be between two or more people, I think a technically impeccable and perhaps purist interpretation of the word would recognize that while it may occur in a group, dialogue is necessarily occurring between two people; if you are talking to a group and not a sustained single target, isn't that really just a monologue, a descant? Groups can converse; only two people can dialogue. 

The brilliant theorist, researcher, educator, and activist Jean Anyon, who passed away a few years ago, would probably have much to say about not just the current American political climate but also the role of schools and education in this context. At least one might infer as much from her original works on the political economy of schooling, the hidden curricula of class-based preparation for labor (or lack thereof), and the mechanisms of social movements and radical social critique. In Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement (2014)she provides a set of theoretical constructs that explain how it is that people come to attain "Involvement in Political Contention." I think it's relevant to explore for my wonderings because Anyon dealt explicitly with questions of class as well as urbanity. These things are on my mind when I use the word "dialogue," and, as I explain below, in my current thinking about different groups of individuals and the potential for dialogue. 

So in the coming days I will process a few frameworks, including Anyon's, in relation to this question about dialogue between alienated groups, but to be more practical and true to my own embodied knowledge, I will try to bound my thinking to two alienated groups that we might not always think about as such: scientists and students. Within scientists, I might ponder social scientists versus "hard" scientists, specifically, field biologists. Within students, I hope to learn about urban versus rural. I plan to anchor my musings about the differences and possibilities harbored in dialogue by trying to learn from the following intellectual models: 

1. Anyon - political contention and contention in dialogue between people from different groups, and the role of education in supporting these

2. Chomsky - climate change and conversations, and the difference between career science and science in school

3. Jakob von Uexkull - Umwelt, animals, people, and bubble-merging

I would love to hear from people in the humanities especially about anything, of course, but particularly some of these words I'm trying to pin down: movements, opposition, dialogue, conversation... And any other thoughts! Thanks in advance for bearing with the seedlings of my ideas, the evolutions of my out-loud thinking, in these texts. 

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