CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Vail native State Sen. Mike Johnston joined a long and distinguished list of people who were protested for their public stances by Harvard students, but spoke up anyway.
Johnston gave an inspiring keynote address Wednesday for the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His speech came on the heels of a protest by a group of Harvard students, faculty and alumni who disagreed with some of Johnston’s policies. Johnston walked that same commencement line 14 years ago when he earned his master’s in education from Harvard.
On Wednesday, Johnston’s speech went to the heart of the issue by speaking to the common values educators should hold, if they’re in the industry for the right reasons. The protest centered on Johnston’s selection because of his stance on education reform that relies on so-called test-based accountability. They demanded that Dean James Ryan, who selected Johnston to speak, rescind the invitation and to create a more transparent and inclusive process for choosing future commencement speakers.
Ironically, Johnston spoke about fostering open debate in education policy.
“Progress in education requires more dialogue, not less,” said Damion LeeNatali, Johnston’s chief of staff.
So far this spring, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew as speaker at Smith College amid protests over International Monetary Fund policies. Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out from Rutgers University’s ceremony after complaints about her position on the Gulf War. In the School of Education case, the group objected to Johnston’s “vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers.”
Johnston and Ryan went forward with Johnston’s speech, and Johnston received a standing ovation. He spoke about the values that undergird education and why they do it.
“This is a human business,” Johnston told the crowd. “It’s work that’s done shoulder to shoulder by people who feel the same way you do. It’s a shoulder you’ll lean on, possibly cry on, and a shoulder that kids may snot on.”
Students have a fundamental right to know, and to know early and often, Johnston said.
“The only essential ingredient for power is information. It’s why we teach young people to read,” Johnston said.
He said for some, information opens up whole new worlds. For Johnston it was knowing his sons have reading delays.
“That information is powerful,” Johnston said. “Being afraid because of that information is not a reason to stop, it’s a reason to move forward and make decisions with it.”
Debate can be healthy if it pushes you toward improvement, he said.
“I have yet to meet a parent or educator or policy maker who wants their kids to fail,” Johnston said. “We don’t always have to agree. We do have to be aware of the energy we spend fighting each other instead of fighting the issues that are creating these problems.”
Johnston admonished the grads to go to the person with whom they have a problem.
“Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s always the most productive. Sit down with that person. If you are right you have nothing to lose. If you are wrong you have gained something,” he said.
While other Harvard colleges have turned out policy makers, educators move that policy forward into the human heart, he said.
“The promise we’ve all been built for, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident,’ can only be delivered by an American educator,” Johnston said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.