Boston Housing and Deeper Learning (Part Two of Two)

1/21/18

Last week I wrote about the misalignment between housing needs and housing realities in Boston. I suggested that the challenge of housing development in Boston in the future invites the sort of creativity and innovative problem-solving that we would like to see our students pursue. As a case study, one could see how creativity, collaboration, and ideation/iteration would be parts of an entrepreneurial process that students might adopt with such a project.

This sort of project, regardless of scale, also demands empathy. Before the solution-oriented brainstorming, students would have to understand the community’s needs through different lenses. In the case of housing, it would be necessary but insufficient for students to understand the housing report. Quantitative data is critical but not in and of itself, holistic. Were we to “do empathy right,” students would also be walking city streets, conducting interviews, and understanding community needs through a richer framework of culture and daily experiences.

Conceptualizing these empathy-oriented opportunities for students are well within our capacities as educators. Logistics are a major challenge, of course – projects of this sort require resources (time, money) that schools usually do not have in abundance. But there is also another hurdle – less obvious but critically important. For students to adopt an authentic stance of inquiry, they would first have to question many of their own assumptions about what constitutes a high-quality residential experience.

Let me offer two examples. First, consider the imputed benefits of the New England town. It is a reality, as I wrote earlier, that town-oriented politics are stronger in Massachusetts and New England than elsewhere. With that political culture comes with a somewhat well-worn bundle of beliefs in town-hall democracy and local civic pride. These ideas may give us some sense of common identity and purpose. Yet … they are also extraordinarily outdated. As a book reviewer wrote several years ago (prepare for the “ouch”):

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion reminded us. It seems obvious that no one—outside perhaps the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]—is listening any longer to the stories that New England has preferred to tell about itself for the better part of three centuries. In this cultural free fall, when even nostalgia is no longer a particularly effective means of reconnecting with a shared past, what sort of stories do New Englanders, does New England, tell?

For our students to adopt a stance of inquiry, they would need first to question whatever assumptions they have about living in New England. How, exactly, does the image of the classic (quaint? exclusive?) New England town inform a conversation about housing in Mattapan or apartment buildings in the Seaport district – or even what a “poster” New England town itself needs in 2018?

On a larger scale, our students would need to question their assumptions about what people value as Bostonians (in the larger, metro area sense of the term). Imagine our students starting their empathy-oriented interviews in diverse communities by attempting facile connections on topics such as the Red Sox or the Boston Marathon. Consider how routines of school, work, and personal life, ones that our students take for granted, might unconsciously bias the questions they would ask. At a minimum, these assumptions might not be bridge-builders!

Done right, empathy-making is hard. It’s tough to dwell in a space where “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And it’s hard to relate to community members who do not share your sense of local identity, or all your assumptions of what it means to live a good life. But it would be a powerful experience for our students genuinely to engage in “empathy-making.”