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Column: Reset the conversation about ‘divisive concepts’

For the Valley News
Published: 5/6/2021 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 5/6/2021 10:10:03 PM

Contrary to what you might have heard on the radio this week, Hanover’s excellent elementary school is not teaching its youngest students that they are white supremacists. Nor are Hanover teachers shaming those kids, nor any kids. Nor, as was said, are teachers telling students that they should feel guilty for the sins of slavery.

Surely it is a sign of the times that Superintendent Jay Badams had to write to the district’s families to refute these ludicrous accusations directly.

The comments, made Wednesday by a caller to the NHPR program The Exchange, are the latest in an ongoing fever dream on the part of a vocal minority in our community. In the past few months, some have been making comments that are plainly false. This has happened at School Board meetings, and most recently on media talk shows.

This is fearmongering, and it is designed to stir people into a frenzy.

These lies are damaging. Those spreading them are decidedly on the wrong side of history. And they are completely out of step with school leaders’ efforts to manage respectful, data-driven discussions about topics that are as sensitive as they are complex.

Those are the lies, so here is the truth: Our schools are more diverse than ever, and following demographic shifts across the U.S., they will only continue to diversify. As they embrace more forms of difference than ever before, school leaders are asking important and timely questions: How do we adapt curriculum and educational practices, always in developmentally appropriate ways, to ensure that every student has every opportunity to succeed?

Leaders in business and industry emphasize that workers of tomorrow will need significant skills to navigate a world that is diverse, complex and rapidly evolving. This is the context in which Hanover’s educators are serving our families well by ensuring that their students will be prepared.

They are taking the measure of several important strategic questions. How do we optimize the full resources of our multicultural community, and the world outside, on behalf of schoolchildren? How do we best reflect our core values of kindness, justice and equity not only in our words but in our deeds? How can we harness the insights of science and the humanities to illuminate the full dimensionality of our kids’ potential?

To be sure, these questions are sensitive. And we should approach them, as our teachers do every day, in a developmentally appropriate way: We are adults, speaking to other adults truthfully and in good faith. We live in a fact-based world, yet we still have a wide divergence of experiences and opinions. This is not a bad thing; it is an opportunity to learn from each other, and to get better as a result.

The New Hampshire Legislature is contemplating passing into law a bill that would ban — literally, ban — these and other conversations about multicultural diversity in our public schools. HB 544, the so-called “divisive concepts” bill, was lifted directly from the previous president’s executive order banning the use of federal funds for programs that educate people about diverse and inclusive communities. When President Joe Biden cancelled that executive order, white supremacist legislators across the country simply exported the concept to statehouses nationwide — including the Statehouse in New Hampshire.

It is not clear what if any New Hampshire problem this “divisive concepts” bill is trying to solve. At its most basic, banning speech and, indeed, wresting local control of schools and handing it over to bureaucrats in Concord, seems incompatible with the motto on our license plates: “Live free or die.” In a year when teachers, families and children have met a devastating pandemic with courage and mutual care, this insults the efforts of school staff who have worked tirelessly to maintain a stable, high-quality educational environment for all the children in their charge. These falsehoods waste our administrators’ time and taxpayer dollars in response to a misinformation campaign and a mountain of paranoid “right-to-know” requests and serve to bully and intimidate our teachers and school community.

With respect, then, let me reflect the values of my own ongoing education in diversity and inclusion, with the hope of resetting the conversation in a way that best reflects the values of our community. I believe that we are stronger together — because of our differences, not in spite of them. Conversations about history, identity, power and wealth are sensitive and complex, but in this year of turmoil and division they are important as never before.

Let’s approach difficult conversations as we’d encourage our kids to: with sensitivity, with curiosity and with mutual respect. Not with lies.

Carolyn Dever, of Hanover, is the parent of a student at the Bernice A. Ray School and a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.

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