Yesterday I attended a policy event put on by the Hamilton Project about getting our economy back on track. To my surprise, one of the panelists was Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who spearheaded the study on financial incentives in DC and three other major cities. According to the event organizers, the implications of Dr. Fryer's study (that paying kids to read and act right leads to increased achievement) should be part of an overall strategy to ensure a high functioning economy in the coming years.
Upon discovering that Dr. Fryer would be speaking at the event, I found myself feeling hostile toward him. My experiences have suggested that his motives for conducting the study, the findings, and his suggested implications are suspect. I've heard from colleagues that the Capital Gains program had no effect on their students. I noticed Dr. Fryer first released his findings to Amanda Ripley and TIME magazine. Also, I remember that Ripley was the same journalist who did that TFA promo article in The Atlantic back in January that so painfully lacked the insight of a professional educator.
I caught myself shaking my head and grimacing during his presentation. But at that point, I stopped myself. Deep down I know that honest dialogue must involve a willingness to listen to viewpoints that contradict my biases. And at that moment, I was not willing to learn anything from Dr. Fryer. His presentation was literally causing me mental anguish because of all the feelings I associate with people I assume (correctly or incorrectly) are using education as a means of advancing their political aspirations or general prestige rather than contributing anything of substance to the field.
So I stopped myself. And as hard as it was, I took a few minutes to pry open the part of my mind that had closed itself off to Dr. Fryer's presentation. I forced myself to at least consider what he was saying. And I found myself pleased that he suggested that his findings were a first step in what he hopes will be more studies in the nuances of incentives for students. And when the moderator prompted him to suggest that paying students could be a possible solution to some of public education's ills, he refused. He said more work needed to be done before he could draw that conclusion. I doubt I would have heard any of this had I been unable to open my mind a little.
After the event was over, I was leaving the hotel where it had been held when I saw someone who I recognized. It took me a while to realize it was David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. When I got home and Googled him to ensure that it was indeed him, I coincidentally found an article he'd written almost exactly about what I was experiencing during Fryer's presentation, except Brooks's article was about whether people choose to overcome their cognitive biases when they make choices about media they consume online. It's worth reading if you're at all interested.
I think the lesson here is that bias can be extraordinarily influential in the development of our beliefs. When we cling to bias while another point of view is being expressed, it can literally be a painful experience. If we allow our previous experiences (no matter how valid they may be nor how often we see their lessons reconfirmed) to stop us from considering alternative points of view, odds are that we will cease to develop, or at least develop much more slowly. I think this is especially true for beliefs that we feel passionate about or areas that we fancy ourselves as experts in. I like to pretend that I know a little something about education, but every time I attend a policy event on education in DC, I find myself sitting in a room full of people who both know vastly more about the subject and have decades more experience than I do. It's a humbling experience and it's forcing me to rethink my basic understandings over and over and over again. While this is exhausting, I believe it's also led to some big breakthroughs in my understanding of some things.
So lately I've been trying to consider new ideas (especially those that seem distasteful) dispassionately. I'm reminding myself that not only do I not know everything, but I in fact know almost nothing about this grand field. I'm always finding that ideas that I thought were mine have actually been around for thousands of years. And the result is that I engage others with far more questions than answers, because it's become quite clear to me that I have almost none of the latter.