It’s all about school work, family, and sports. These are the types of conversations most commonly experienced on a day-to-day basis at Notre Dame Preparatory. At least, that’s what senior Elizabeth McSorley surmised. Although shallow, these conversations represent an attempt at dialogue.
When people think about dialogue, it’s often viewed as simply, “Hey Paul, how’s it going?” However, dialogue expands beyond a casual greeting. Dialogue is the exchange of ideas and opinions between two or more entities, stimulating and challenging an individual’s ideals, values, and beliefs. In other words, it’s both a tool and a skill that is imperative to learn.
What is the importance of dialogue? It serves as a gate that facilitates the conversation of any topic, most often utilized in the discussion of both sensitive and volatile topics.
As asserted in a 2012 article in the United Nations Chronicle, dialogue is essential for conflict prevention and peace-building. Indeed, dialogue brings four aspects to the table: primarily, an inclusive process for identifying new approaches to address common challenges. Secondly, it entails learning, not just talking. Moreover, it recognizes one another’s humanity; and lastly, it stresses a long-term perspective. These aspects not only serve as political maneuvers; they are applicable to every day life and to every day people. They hinder miscommunication, and instill a two-way conversation.
According to New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, “[when] both sides believe so fiercely in their convictions that they view the other side as not just wrong but fundamentally evil,” that’s when there’s a clear problem. Conflict and hatred don’t stem from evil, instead they stem from a lack of understanding, reflection, and openness.
Dialogue in a high school setting
Typically, students come into their freshman year of high school equipped with a set of values and beliefs instilled by their parents. Although conversations regarding sensitive topics tend to be avoided, high school is regarded as the ideal stage for a maturing young adult to participate in such discussions.
“Dialogue in high school is especially important because it’s not only where you’re growing as a person, but what you’re doing along with your classmates,” remarked NDP senior Reagan Ackerman.
High school is the time where students can begin to form their autonomy and self-understanding. This stage ultimately shapes who he or she becomes as a young adult.
“Dialogue opens people’s views up to criticism and also opens them up to becoming finer and ultimately better […] which leads them to become better people,” stated senior Trevor Gannalo.
When dialogue is brought into the picture, it becomes less about students mirroring their parents’ beliefs, and more about forming their own. Through the help of teachers, these conversations are given parameters and are facilitated. Dialogue in a high school setting provides the opportunity to test a student’s thought process and grow from the mistakes he or she makes while reflecting on others’ input. In an era in which people are easily distracted by electronics, face-to-face meaningful discussions are increasingly unique.
Dialogue at NDP
In a Nov. 2017 Seraphim survey of 127 students pulled from a pool of 313 random interviewees, 64.6 percent said they feel comfortable discussing controversial and/or sensitive topics at school. In translation, it can be predicted that over two-thirds of the student population of 940 students feel like they can actively participate in these types of dialogues, while one-third doesn’t.
Among the comments granted anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the topic: “I don’t feel comfortable talking about abortions because teachers are very bitter if one brings it up.”
Another anonymous survey taker wrote, “In some classrooms I feel are completely open to free discussion. However, I have heard stories of teachers who will strongly argue with students if they have opinions against their own, berating them to the point where they do not feel [they] can discuss the other side of a matter because the teacher is so one-sided.”
“I feel like Notre Dame is relatively progressive – there are still some topics that I would avoid (it would be nice if I didn’t have to) – and I feel pretty comfortable talking about things like abortion, and LGBT rights,” said a third anonymous survey respondent. “By no means will everyone agree on these topics, but I know that people are willing to discuss them.”
Does the NDP learning community instigate dialogue? The majority of the students interviewed said “yes”, however, how is this achieved? The key to meaningful dialogue in a high school setting is creating an environment where students feel comfortable and safe to express their opinions; in other words, a safe haven. This is accomplished not through the students, but rather through the teachers, the individuals who most often interact with students. They’re responsible for educating, and for creating an optimal learning environment, unique to each classroom.
According to an article written in 1996 by Mary Solely, a senior program officer in the Education and Training Division at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., an educator can achieve such environment by “instilling the capacities to make thoughtful decisions and judgments, encouraging students to sustain democratic principles and participate in democratic processes, and creating habits that will fortify continued learning.”
However, this isn’t necessarily a consensus among educators; more so in a small Catholic school, such as NDP.
“You may have other teachers that may not listen to a pro-choice argument at all,” expressed Mr. Lamb, social studies teacher and head of the social studies department. “That might feel that it’s unacceptable to do something like that, but in the social studies classes you’re supposed to be discussing things like that.”
Although discussion of sensitive topics is part of the social studies curriculum, it’s also vastly visible in other classes, such as philosophy, medical ethics, and theology; courses designed to be taught through Socratic-type-methods, where ethics and morality are a prime focus.
“In the classroom, we encourage and often require discussion and debate,” stated Mrs. Fraser, a theology teacher for both juniors and seniors. “Everyone is constantly inundated with moral dilemmas – in social media, with friends and family, at work, movies, and music. We need to learn to examine an issue by taking it apart and asking the questions that will guide us to conclude, is this right or wrong, and what will be my response when tempted or manipulated.”
As explained by junior Cale Gregory, it’s usually the teachers who initiate the conversations. It’s the Catholic teachings that provide a “moral base,” nonetheless it’s the students who lead the discussions both inside and outside the classroom. Students want to engage in these challenging conversations, however, the environment has to be welcoming.
The present minority
While a majority of NDP students feel comfortable expressing themselves, a whopping 35.4 percent of the student population do not; many of whom blame the homogenous population that conforms the school: Caucasian, affluent, and individuals of the Catholic faith. Some students may regard the school’s unapologetic Catholic identity as, “a moral base that is needed for a controversial grey area”. Others see it as a detriment to an environment open to discussion.
“Since we are a Catholic school, many believe that putting down anyone with opposite views to the Church is okay because our school propagates the Catholic ideals,” said a senior granted anonymity. “There’s nothing wrong with anyone’s religious or personal beliefs. I believe the only issue stems from not being accepting of the beliefs of others.”
According to school records, 68 percent of the NDP populous is Catholic. Although not enough data is present, it can be assumed that Catholic students feel more comfortable expressing their beliefs and opinions since the majority shares these beliefs. Why does this matter? In a setting that is affiliated with a certain belief system, like religion, or even a geographical background, there will always be a majority bias, and there’s nothing wrong with that reality. However, the issue stems from the lack of opposing thoughts either because there are none, or because individuals don’t feel comfortable speaking against the status quo.
Diversity of opinions, ideas, and beliefs are essential to a society conformed of people from all over the world. Furthermore, having a high school environment that prepares students for the ideological jungle that college presents, is more important than ever in U.S. history. The present minority is the minority in a setting that is most often outcast because of what they believe. This is what dialogue attempts to erase.