The purpose of Courageous Conversations

(Disclaimer: make sure to feel what quadrant you’re in before responding to this article)

is the disclaimer no one wants to open an opinion piece with. But it seems like that’s where SPA is headed. It’s as if Courageous Conversations is the new law of the discussion land, with square diagrams popping up in harkness-table classrooms, grade retreats, and assemblies (ie. in the MLK assembly: “First, remember the Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations”). At least, that’s what the administration would like to think (or at least what I think the administration would like to think), because it’s integration has been far from seamless. I’ll get to why in a bit. For now, I’m going to give it the fairest assessment I can muster. Because I feel like it can be really useful, powerful even.

The framework does something very, very difficult:

You know how sometimes, when you hear something on the radio or tv, and you have this knee-jerk sort of reaction to it, like, you don’t stop to think “I’m not sure how to feel” but just feel something deep down inside you was kicked over, something in your core rattled? But other times, you’re unsure, and you think about that person’s perspective or feelings or what they might be going through. And then, you ever talked to someone who’s really distraught, who’s been rattled by something said or done, and nothing you tell them is helping? Or when you have this super strong reaction to a movie or something, and it just uplifts you like nothing else, while your friend is just kinda “that was a pretty good movie.” There is a huge disconnect between you and them, and oftentimes, you don’t know how to get your point across.

We’ve all had these experiences, these disconnects, but usually they’re part of life outside of school. Your friend is going through a breakup, or some test didn’t go well, etc. For the most part, they’re not intellectual problems, and they can’t be solved intellectually (they can be intellectualized, but that’s analyzing, not solving).

Likewise, the core of classroom discussions and papers are intellectual. You can make your history essay an emotional, deeply personal work, and you might have a brilliant piece of writing, but if the focus becomes too emotional, you’re approaching something to be experienced as opposed to argued: more art than analysis.

But things can get muddy in the form of social issues: issues that operate on an intellectual and emotional/experiential level. In a discussion, you don’t know where a person may be speaking from. You can communicate on either one.

Race is a good example of this. It’s very hard to talk about because it’s so systemic and affects literally everyone in profound ways that we might never fully comprehend: it’s something people experience themselves, and often have strong convictions about. But it’s also something intellectual. People try to understand it on an abstract and removed level, so it’s not just something experienced, but understood from all perspectives. You need to understand both sides, otherwise discussions won’t get anywhere.

And this is what courageous conversations tries to do: help you recognize what state of mind other people are in, so you can communicate not only what you think, but what you feel. Usually, what we feel is vaguely implied by our words, or our tone, or is left unstated. But with conversations about difficult and/or divisive topics it is crucial to understand how different people feel.

This is something I feel the harkness model kind of ignores. We were never really taught to consider how other people feel while in a discussion. While usually, topics aren’t divisive enough for high schoolers to have ultra-strong preconceived notions about them, every once in a while they are. And when they are, we end up either hurting each other, or not talking at all. Frankly I’m glad SPA is trying a new framework for discussions: a framework that can actually tackle difficult issues. But in this case, they clearly failed.

The “Courageous Conversations” protocol was poorly and hastily introduced. After one quick assembly, the administration expects you to take an intellectual framework and apply it to literally everything you think. “What quadrant are you in?” like we’re supposed to shove our intimate feelings into one of four boxes so they can be formalized and discussed. Then you’re going to ask that we add this framework to any and all discussions (at a school where discussion is baked into everything we do). It’s like the administration informally asking students to change religions: an ask that big is going to be ridiculed (plus “Courageous Conversations” sounds like it has some big happy animal mascot appealing to demographics a bit younger than high school). Maybe if it was introduced gradually as a once-in-a-while class exercise instead of a school-wide retreat, the protocol might have been treated differently. But, for now at least, this opportunity has passed.

I’m writing this because I think the framework deserves some more credit. We finally have a framework that can help us understand the conflicting emotions that make difficult discussions difficult, and students shouldn’t discount that. Likewise, the administration shouldn’t discount the fact that massive additions to the core of how discussions take place should not be suddenly forced on a student body.

I hope that someday, in some form, the core of courageous conversations lives on at SPA.