This August, Victoria M. Defrancesco Soto, currently a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches in the Department of Mexican-American and Latino Studies, gave the keynote address for the 8th Annual Texas Higher Education Symposium. The symposium was hosted by the College of Education’s Educational Leadership and Policy Department (ELP) at The University of Texas at Austin.In “Bridging the Political Divide: Educators on the Front Line,” Soto spoke directly to over 100 educators in attendance about how what happens in their classrooms can help bridge a widening political and societal divide.
“In classrooms,” said Soto, “diverse groups come into contact. Shared contact can stem in-group/out-group divisions.” That intergroup contact, the very presence of others, starts the process of bridging.
To facilitate bridging, she explained, certain components are necessary: equal status of individuals, cooperation, common goals, and support by institutional authority. “Schools are ground zero for this,” she said.
“Education reduces prejudice through the social norms that are introduced,” said Soto. “For example, a person with a preference unlike yours deserves respect, and you may have other things in common. Smalls steps inoculate against polarization.” In addition, she said, “Learning about the history and lives of others also helps humanize them.”
Soto urged educators to help their students “get uncomfortable. Help them talk about different views rather than retreat to enclaves with pre-established conditions and content. Let things get uncomfortable, and moderate as an educator.”
“You as an educator have more power than almost any other profession to bridge the cultural divide.”
This was the second year that the ELP department hosted the Texas Higher Education Symposium, which brought together several hundred educators from public, private, and two-year colleges around Texas.