Do You Have Opposability and Cross-class Expertise?

In yesterday’s New York Times op-ed, “Skills in Flux,” David Brooks shares some examples of seven new skills that are valued in today’s highly-networked, multicultural, and data-rich world. He writes: “As the economy changes, the skills required to thrive in it change, too, and it takes a while before these new skills are defined and acknowledged.”

More to come on what this means for the education sector, but for now I want to dig into two skills that Brooks mentions that are particularly valuable for education leaders.

The first is opposability – the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind while still retaining the ability to function (a la F. Scott Fitzgerald).

The education sector is wrought with polemic arguments that present policy solutions as mutually exclusive, but behind those arguments is intimidating complexity and startling nuance that exposes the vast gray area where most issues reside. For instance, high-quality, competency-based instruction is not incompatible with annual tests and accountability measures, yet I don’t often see education leaders and policymakers employing the mental opposability that could reconcile these ideas into powerful policy and practice.

The second is cross-class expertise – the ability to operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.

Brooks’ idea of cross-class expertise as a professional skill is particularly germane to urban education where teachers, principals, and system leaders are disproportionately white, well-educated, and affluent compared to the constituencies that they serve. I interpret this skill as a kind of actionable self-awareness specific to race and class which is related to one of my recent posts on the necessity of education leaders being able to discuss issues of race, class, and inequity,

In a conversation with my colleague Saamra Mekuria-Grillo, at the Pahara Institute, we broke down  cross-class expertise into two kinds: native and learned. Native cross-class expertise is a skill acquired by mixed-race, bi-cultural, or mixed-class people or those who operate in highly diverse environments for extended lengths of time – much like how being  immersed in a digital culture results in digital natives. Learned cross-class expertise pertains to people who operate in a racially or culturally homogeneous environment but proactively gain exposure to new cultures, perspectives, and experiences to inform their work and personal development.

Should the education sector learn to value opposability we’d move closer to public debate that’s more civil, productive, and nuanced. And more cross-class experts could help reconcile the urgency to close achievement gaps with reforms that include the communities where they exist.