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Education's Flatland Problem

Readers (especially those who are fans of geometrically themed romantic fiction) may recall Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, the 19th-century novel by Edwin Abbott. For me, the book's lasting image was the two-dimensional narrator's reaction to the mind-blowing visitation by the three-dimensional sphere—a creature who the narrator could only comprehend as a two-dimensional circle.

I've always found haunting that image, of a three-dimensional person being squished to two dimensions by our limited senses. In recent years, it's also started to feel like a pretty good analogy for how the world works.

In a world increasingly dominated by screens and social media, it's easy to think we know people we've never met. It's easier and easier to "interact" with people we've never really met. Yet, when we react to people, it's easy to imagine that we do know them. Standing in for the actual person, of course, is the two-dimensional cutout we've constructed from what we've seen online.

Needless to say, this can all get in the way of context, sensible discussion, or the constructive exchange of ideas.

The costs of the Flatland phenomenon are made clear to me on a regular basis, since I have the privilege of hosting a regular series of bipartisan conversations. At that table, which regularly includes senior figures from the Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Trump administrations; the NEA and AFT; and a smattering of foundations and organizations, we're able to tackle heated questions in ways that are frequently surprising and almost always heartening. Most of us leave that table feeling like we've gained perspective and understanding and are inclined to see one another more fully as three-dimensional figures—even if minds are unchanged on the specific issue in dispute.

Needless to say, the public discourse rarely plays out that way. Instead, many people seem less inclined to take arguments at face value and more inclined to scour them for key words that suggest which "side" the speaker is on based upon some prefabricated narrative. In fact, a condemnatory (or enthusiastic) social-media response can readily drown out the actual substance of an argument—reducing complexity to caricature.

To be sure, the Flatland problem mostly afflicts the relatively small handful of us in education who reside in the policy, advocacy, and research sectors. But the trickle down effects can end up seeping into districts, and even schools—affecting millions of teachers and students.

A particularly egregious case of this recently played out with former Ascend charter schools founder and CEO Steven Wilson. This summer, Wilson penned a blog post insisting that educational rigor must not be seen as a "white" thing while arguing that the civil rights community had sometimes compromised on rigor in the battle for equity and access.  Wilson's characterization was perhaps too sweeping, but the sentiment is both reasonable and consistent with the historical record. Almost immediately, an internet petition sprung up which bizarrely insisted that Wilson had employed "white supremacist rhetoric" and demanded he be fired. This fall, the Ascend board terminated Wilson.

I'll readily concede that there are complicated, difficult issues here. I think Wilson's stance is sensible, but I have no problem with someone who wants to debate Wilson's take on the history or the lessons for schooling. Wilson made a number of observations and claims that can be contested in good faith. My problem is with those who'd reduce this man, who has spent decades trying to create good schools in low-income communities, who has been an outspoken champion of "restorative" school discipline and racial justice, to a bizarre caricature—based on an aggressive misreading of his words.

This kind of thing is poisonous, and it should be called out as such. Now, one can defend Wilson as a three-dimensional person without in any way denying that there are profound social challenges that need to be addressed. I'd like to think that lots of people would have spoken up to say just that. Moreover, I've got no beef with someone doing so, and then also taking issue with some (or much) of what he said. Yet, fearful of being caught on the wrong side of a two-dimensional divide, many who privately communicated full-throated support for Wilson (after I wrote about all this here) have been reluctant to publicly share that. 

The Flatland phenomenon is a general one. But it's been especially pernicious in education, where our energies are directed to finding ways to help 100,000 schools engage in the intensely three-dimensional work of educating more than 50 million children. The only path to improving schools involves sorting through complicated questions and principled disagreements. The problem is that our two-dimensional habits are making that path harder and harder to find.

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