Working Courageously: My Takeaway from a Day of “Critical Conversations”

As I sat down under the huge tent in Radcliffe Yard on the crisp fall morning of September 19th, travel coffee mug in hand, I looked forward to a day of talks and performances by the type of high-profile educators, musicians, politicians, and researchers that only Harvard can bring together under one banner.

By the end of the day, I felt that I had received one simple message: “Work courageously.”

The idea of working courageously started with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, in the first session of the morning. Toward the end of his interview with Professor Monica Higgins, he said to the HGSE community, “Hold yourself to the highest level of accountability. Work hard; work courageously.”

That phrase, short and simple, struck a chord with me. I began to think about what it could mean to work courageously. No matter where I went on Friday, I couldn’t stop hearing the call to work past my known limits in order to make a real difference through education. Even speakers who didn’t state it directly managed to imply the necessity of bravery and venturing into unknown territory in education.

Karen Brennan noted in her 8×8 talk that teachers using coding programs in classrooms need to banish their fears of “getting stuck” when using technology in the classroom and be okay with not knowing all the answers in order to foster a progressive learning environment. L. Todd Rose suggested that, since there are no average brains and therefore no average students, we need an education system that treats students as unique individuals, and he openly admitted that “this is a tall order” and a daunting task. He implied that, in spite of the intimidating nature of this task, educators have to muster up the courage to address it. In his lunchtime address, Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M. ’75, told us outright that “Changing public policy is a full-contact sport; it is not for the faint of heart.”

Now, let me just say here that I have never thought of myself as a particularly courageous person. I would not normally list bravery as one of my top five characteristics. Like many high-achieving students, I have a profound fear of failure that often manifests itself as risk aversion. So just thinking all day about what it would mean to work courageously started to feel exhausting to me. By 3:00 PM, I was more than ready to unwind, to listen to the much-anticipated musical guest, Yo-Yo Ma, and to eat and relax at the Block Party. But before we could do any of the above, my colleagues and I were to hear one more speech from our fearless leader himself, Dean Jim Ryan.

I couldn’t help but notice that President Drew Faust used the following carefully selected adjectives to introduce our Dean: “courageous; resourceful; enthusiastic; dogged; determined.” Dean Ryan called for us, as a community, to find the courage to work courageously. He reminded us of our responsibility as HGSE students when he asked, “If not us, who?” Who, indeed?

And so, despite my long-nurtured aversion to risk and failure, I recognize my responsibility as a HGSE student and I have thoroughly resolved to develop my courage throughout this year by pushing myself to ask difficult questions, voice provocative opinions, engage in challenging conversations, and let go of my own mistakes, which I know that I will inevitably make along the way. I hope to develop the courage at HGSE to identify critical areas of need in the education sector and to pursue dramatic, tangible changes in those areas.

Working hard is important, but hard work is not enough to change an education system that is failing many children, to reduce the cost of higher education, or to decrease unequal access to opportunities. We need to do something different. We need to do courageous work. As educators, researchers, policymakers, and leaders in the field of education, we need to pursue new pathways that will make us uncomfortable, challenged, and even disliked, because that is the type of work that will ultimately make a difference. And no one is better poised or prepared to make a difference than a HGSE student.

How will you work courageously, today and every day?

I took this photo as I sipped my coffee and waited for the day to start!
Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M. ’75 – One of the most inspiring lunches I’ve had in a long time!
From L to R: Andy Osborn and Greg Anderson (both HEP ’15) under the tent in Radcliffe Yard.
Block Party
Me and some of my Higher Education cohort colleagues at the Block Party.

Want to see videos of some of the talks from Critical Conversations? Check out the HGSE Campaign website and Learn to Change the World.

Emily Petersell is a Master’s of Education candidate in the Higher Education program. Her interests include the internationalization of universities, increasing access to higher education for underrepresented groups, and building diverse and inclusive campuses.