Students sit around a Harkness table, nervously glancing at each other in silence until a confident few speak up. However, as those few students finish speaking, the conversation dies off for lack of new insights. This common situation often arises after a controversial question is posed in classrooms. Many students believe that they are not educated enough to speak on the topic and keep their mouths shut out of fear that they will be deemed ignorant or uninformed by their peers. As a result, the conversation lacks the additional views and perspectives that these students could provide.
A common fear at St. Paul Academy and Summit School is that if a student has not researched a topic thoroughly enough, they will be perceived as less intelligent by their peers for speaking on that topic. However, this makes discussions more difficult and less fruitful as it prevents the addition of new voices to the conversation which can keep the conversation flowing and increase its depth. Not only are there less voices altogether, but a lack of views from those who are not confident enough in their intellect to speak up. Because of this disparity in voices, conversations can often lead in a predictable manner.
Researching a topic and reading various views from credible sources can deepen a student’s understanding of a subject. However, when students are afraid to speak because they believe they have not reached some golden standard of research on a topic, the desire to be well educated to avoid negative judgement begins to have adverse effects on discussions.
The methods by which students pass this judgement upon their peers is usually not by outright comments, but in more subtle ways. It could be in the expression on a student’s face, in a series of questions that scrutinize a student’s statement unnecessarily, or by simply ignoring or not addressing the point a student is trying to make; regardless of method, this judgement can dissolve a student’s self-esteem and make them afraid to speak again.
While some of the reasons for this fear to speak lie in those who hold them, an attitude of judgment exists and a focus on intellectualism that exist at SPA contributes measurably to the problem. In some cases, it should be acceptable for students to speak from an emotional and personal standpoint, and they should do so even if they are not extensively researched on the subject. Students should not present their personal experiences as fact, but introducing how a topic affects their own lives is valid information and does not require hours of reading articles. Some parts of discussions by nature require previous research and education on a factual basis, but all discussions require analysis and synthesis of those facts.
While students may be afraid of seeming ignorant, they should realize that not knowing everything but participating anyways is not only acceptable, but at the very essence of the imperfection of humanity. Curiosity and the desire to educate oneself drive students to ask questions, which are necessary traits of a respectable scholar. In order to help combat the fear surrounding ignorance at SPA, students should stop judging others for what they do not know, and more importantly, stop judging themselves.
In attending SPA, students are attempting to learn, to gain a deeper understanding of the world they live in. No student knows the one definitive answer to every question, and therefore no one has the right to pass on judgment upon their peers or act infallible during a discussion. In the reverse, while students should respect their peers’ insights, they should keep in mind that a high school student cannot truly be an expert on a subject. If students could not only acknowledge, but truly believe, that no one student has more or less authority to speak than another, then SPA would advance significantly as a place of learning.