From the Director: Bridging Difference: Inclusive Dialogue in Higher Education

By Donald W. Harward, Director of BTtoP and President Emeritus of Bates College

Colleges are asked how they will bridge the widening gulfs of difference among groups identified by race, class, and gender, and to rectify the imbalances of attention and opportunities historically given to underserved or marginalized populations. Yet, how they are to proceed remains for many an acute and formidable challenge.

A recommended strategy to begin to help bridge difference has been to hold inclusive campus dialogues involving multiple campus and off-campus constituencies. Doing so could lead to the emergence of new emphases and altered expectations. Responses to those altered expectations could occur in the form of institutional change. The success of the strategy would depend on a campus culture which welcomed inquiry and valued open consideration of what underlies prevailing opinions or beliefs. The strategy calls for a true dialogic exchange of narratives and life stories regarding difference—candid conversations about persisting intolerance, racism, and class privilege. In dialogue, participants could learn about the lived experiences and perspectives of another to bridge great differences by connecting their own experiences to the experiences of those considered to have different group identities—to come to know what it’s like to be a member of a group to which you do not belong.

But is it truly possible to come to know another? Could the institution, through its curricula and its campus admission and recruiting practices, make evident that empathetic dialogic exchange is not only possible, but necessary? A positive answer requires discussing and assessing claims about knowing, about identity, and about who is entitled to voice these claims.

Claims that we cannot know what it’s like to be another—to be a member of a group to which we do not belong—or that we speak only to those like us—may be widely voiced; but are they true? Is a group’s identity fixed, or always changing? Is it clear what is meant by “me,” “us,” and “them”? Can someone else know what it’s like to be me, with my experiences, my memories, and my impressions? If the answer to that question is “no”—that no one can know what it’s like to be me—does that equate to “no one can know what it’s like to be another”?

There is a separate relevant claim regarding group identity that also impedes reconciling difference. It is a claim of privilege about who is entitled to characterize, to name, a group’s identity. The Black Lives Matter movement takes a stand against this sort of attempt at characterizing black identity. Black voices, black lives, and the lives of other suppressed groups have not historically “mattered”—their identity, instead, was defined and named for them, an act considered “justified” by the hegemonic dominant group solely based on their dominance. What values and principles should justify the privileging of any voice of group identity? Could “fairness” justify privileging heretofore suppressed voices?

Examining such questions, even just raising them for discussion, can initiate an inclusive campus dialogue before it moves to the particulars: to the prevailing divisiveness and tensions regarding identity politics on campus, to whether intersectional and suppressed identities are given physical space or voice, or to whether the faculty can sanction avoidance yet insist that students risk confrontation.

A dialogue is not a guarantee of achieving harmony. However, by beginning with and frequently returning to questions about knowing and identity, the dialogue escapes capture by personal or silos of interest or by unexamined preconceptions, prejudice, or beliefs. Everyone has access to answering the questions; all participants have a perspective, even if emphases and terminology vary. Participating in dialogue allows participants to recognize that coming to know, to understand, is a relational activity of engagement. That relation—understanding—involves both self-awareness of being in such a relation and appreciating (sometimes discovering) what you bring. And it also involves empathy—recognizing and respecting the integrity and identity of another with which one stands in relation.

The dialogue can make evident that understanding what it’s like to be another can have its source in attending to, listening to, and engaging with another’s life stories, their art and culture, their actions, and their narratives that are abundant and available over place and time. It can also make clear that we discover, engage, and even create our own life stories, and in doing so, we come to empathetically understand the shared narrative of our own groups. As we identify features from the life stories and actions of others that are analogous with those of our own, we are seeking access to their identity and to providing access to our own vulnerability to be known.

Grouping terms—such as race, gender, and class—have no fixed denotation. They designate nothing—in general or in specific. They are constructions; however, their use has charged connotations that have long molded behaviors and attitudes. Group identity is much like a fabric with an ever-changing weave of colors and intensities, not a fixed reality. So if a group’s identity is to be known, its pursuit has to be richer and more textured than simply citing terms with no identifiable referents. And it is on our campuses that dialogic exchange can be used to initiate such textured pursuit.

We can know what it’s like to be other, to speak to those other than ourselves; we can empathetically understand another. We can use the power of metaphor and establish the basis of resemblance that can justify analogical reasoning and discovery. We have access to evidence and reason, and we can learn from listening to life stories and the histories and voices they contain. Empathetic understanding makes moral imagination possible by engendering respect for the value of others and shared interest in a common good. Coming to know, to empathetically understand, is an act of liberation—the escape from Plato’s allegorical cave—which would, if not escaped, make learning and justice false hopes. The message of the allegory is that education—moving from self-belief (or impressions) to knowledge of another—is the path to illumination and freedom.

Education is also the route to “knowing thyself.” Empathetic understanding of others is a condition for knowing oneself. They are necessarily connected. The reality of that connection is made explicit in education. It is the basis for an appeal to institutions to begin conversations that bridge even great divides, alter expectations, participate in guiding change, and make solidarity possible.