An Interview With Richard Weissbourd

Richard Weissbourd is a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he co-directs the Human Development and Psychology Program and the Kennedy School of Government. His work focuses on moral development, vulnerability and resilience in childhood and effective schools and services for children.

Read more about his work and philosophies below in an interview between Richard Weissbourd, PACH Co-Founder Niobe Way, and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.


Niobe Way: I wanted to start off with just having you tell me a little bit about Making Caring Common. Just what is the work, in your own words?

Richard Weissbourd: Great. Making Caring Common was born out of concern about the degree to which we have elevated achievement, happiness, and aspects of success as the primary goals of child-raising, and demoted or marginalized concern for others, concern for the common good, concern for justice. It’s based on research we’ve conducted over the last six or seven years that speaks to the degree to which we have elevated these aspects of success as the primary goals of child-raising and marginalized caring for others and the common good. So we are really trying to put caring for others, caring for the common good, concerns about justice, front and center in child-raising again. And we do that through a lot of work with the media, but we also do it through trying to influence the key institutions that send signals to students.


Making Caring Common was born out of concern about the degree to which we have elevated achievement, happiness, and aspects of success as the primary goals of child-raising, and demoted or marginalized concern for others, concern for the common good, concern for justice.


R: So Turning the Tide works with about 300 college admissions offices and is trying to change the signals that college admissions send to high school students about what’s important. Right now I think high school students hear a lot from colleges that what’s important is academic achievement, athletic achievement, and donor and legacy status. What they don’t hear is that what’s important is that you’re a good person who cares about justice and is committed to it. And the other part of our work is providing strategies to schools and parents for raising kids who are caring, justice-minded, grateful. And so we have lots of different kinds of engaging activities and resources for schools and parents about building empathy, gratitude, clarity about justice, self-awareness. So that’s Making Caring Common in a nutshell.

N: Okay. So, I think I want to dive right in to if you could tell me how you see the connection between care and justice.

R: Well, I think that when people are able to care for people who are different from them… You know, we have this confusing conversation about care sometimes. We talk about it like either you have it or you don’t have it, or you either have a certain amount of it or you don’t have a certain amount of it. But almost everybody cares for somebody. I mean, there are sociopaths who don’t care about anybody. But I think the much bigger issue is, who do you care for? Do you care for people who are different from you in class, in race, in gender, in sexual orientation? Do you care for people who you may find irritating or alienating in some ways? Do you care for people who differ in religious orientation or political orientation? Are you aware of the bus driver, servers in restaurants, school receptionists; are these people on your radar? Are these people in your circle of concern? And I think when you can appreciate people who are different from you in those respects, you have the foundation for justice: that justice involves being able to coordinate the multiple perspectives of the many different people in your community and in society. And so caring across difference, I think, is the key foundation for developing a sense of justice, of true justice.

Crystal Clarke: Can you say a little more about the signals that are sent and how they are received by these communities?

R: Yeah, well, I mean, in college admissions, I think that all of our adult institutions, to some degree, not just college admissions — we sort of started with college admissions, but we think about other institutions, too. We may one day work with corporations and workplaces and the signals they send to children about what’s important.

C: Right.

R: But I’ll just give you one example. Our universities, including my own and I’m assuming NYU… I mean, Harvard through most of its history, stood for ethical values. And I’m uncomfortable about many of those ethical values — they were white male ethical values — but they were ethical values. Now when you ask people what Harvard stands for — and we’ve done surveys of Harvard students and have asked people outside of Harvard — I hear elitism, success, excellence… You generally don’t hear ethical values. And that’s true by and large for universities and colleges across the country. And I think it’s important that our institutions, our schools at every level, our colleges, our employment agencies, are sending signals to kids that these ethical capacities are important. And throughout most of our history, they did. And again, I’m not comfortable with some of the ethical values they were conveying. But I think we have to convey ethical values. And we have to think about new ethical values.


Caring across difference, I think, is the key foundation for developing a sense of justice, of true justice.


N: Yeah. And I think, Rick, that the connection between care and justice and those doing justice work and those doing care work — it’s often a divide you see in the field with ‘people who are doing SEL work,’ which is care work, and then ‘people who are doing social justice’ folks. My frustration has been that it is oftentimes segregated. So the justice folks aren’t seeing that the care folks are relevant; and the care folks, quite frankly, for some of the SEL sort of programs, don’t really see justice as one of their goals. So I’m curious about if you see the divide, and how your organization deals with that divide in terms of bringing it together.

R: Well, I think it’s a great thought and question, and I totally agree with you. And this has been my frustration with SEL. I think SEL is super important. And I think these skills are very important. But the development of social-emotional skills or competencies, I think is very different than the development of ethical character and a commitment to justice. I mean, take something like perspective-taking. You know, con men and politicians and sales-people can be very good at perspective-taking, but they don’t value other people. And part of what moral development and justice development is is learning how to value other people and value people who are different from you. It’s also that SEL is not about systems. It’s not about, “Is my school or community fair? Is it just? Is my country fair or just?” So, you know, I think that SEL is one component of a bigger project around helping kids become moral people in the full sense of the word.

N: I think one of the battles that we face — that I’m sure you have faced, too — is that division though. The whole notion that I oftentimes get frustrated with that the justice folks don’t see the focus on care and connection as necessarily related. And it’s so deeply connected.

R: I look at it both ways. I think SEL needs to be coupled with a focus on developing moral capacities as well as clarity about and a commitment to justice.

N: Absolutely, absolutely. So, your organization deals with both and brings both together, and I guess I’m curious — How do you make that explicit in your work with institutions and with parents, that the two are linked? Because I do think a lot of parents won’t hear you as saying the two are linked, once you talk about care.

R: We made a decision early on — and I go back and forth on whether it’s the right decision. I mean this was a hundred years ago. But I was interested in calling us something like ‘The Center for Justice’ or the promotion of justice or something. And I think the feeling was, among our advisory committee and other folks that I talked to, that the word justice had become so identified with democrats and liberals. And if we really wanted to move people who didn’t share our ideology, we shouldn’t call it the center for justice. So, we start with care. And whenever I speak, I try to make this link to people, that caring across difference is the basis of justice. And it’s not just about caring; it is about caring across race, gender, class, etc., but it’s also about, how do you care and engage constructively people who don’t share your political and religious views? Justice is what I’m most interested in. Making Caring Common is not just about being nice My mother gives me a hard time, my 97-year-old mother. “Are you still doing that Making People Nice project?”

[laughter]

C: I love that.

N: But that’s the thing, Rick, I mean that’s what I’m trying to get to the heart of. You know, I dealt with that for years now, people saying oh, so you’re just trying to get people to hold hands. And I’m like no, no, no. But the reality is that, care is, as Carol pointed out decades ago, care is radical and it’s not just caring about the other, it’s caring about the self and it’s about caring about many others. And so the idea is seeing care as radical and as justice. And I do think that’s a problem, that we think of care as somehow — because it’s associated with the feminine — as sort of lame, and justice is somehow more lofty.

R: I just want to echo that, I think that’s exactly right, I think care has become feminized, empathy has become feminized, in ways that are really problematic.

N: Yeah. What would be your answer to: what’s the strategy to actually get those conversations to join? How do you think your work is being used to join the two ideas?

R: So you know, it varies in different contexts. In our college admissions work, a lot of what we are encouraging colleges and college admissions to do is to signal the importance of concern for the common good and being able to take multiple perspectives and looking for students who are community-minded and appreciate diversity in all its senses. And we don’t use the word justice very much.


A lot of what we are encouraging colleges and college admissions to do is to signal the importance of concern for the common good and being able to take multiple perspectives and looking for students who are community-minded and appreciate diversity in all its senses.


R: You know, we did have a finding that really interested me in a survey we did a few months ago, right after the George Flloyd murder. We did the value sort, where you do ten values and you pick the three that are most important. There are all kinds of problems with these surveys, but they’re certainly interesting to do at different points in time. Like, you do them during the football games when there’s kneeling and you may get a lot of Republicans picking patriotism. But after George Flloyd, we got over 75% of people picking justice as one of their top 3 and a solid majority of Republicans picking justice as one of their top 3.

N: Wow.

R: And it made me think that public events can activate these values in different ways, you know, they’re not as stable or static as we might think. And that maybe you can move people on justice if you’re engaging them the right way.

N: Thinking about moving forward, where do you think your organization could grow in ways that more explicitly addresses that divide, between getting people to come together, in essentially as seeing care and justice as one and the same concept in many ways? Not so simple as to say the same concept, but you know what I mean. That they’re intersectional.

R: Well, I am trying to be strategic in what audience I’m speaking to. Whether I speak to parents or educators, I get to justice, but I get there slowly. And I get there by talking about care first and caring for other people. And I try to make the connections for people in the way I was just trying to make them with you, around caring for people who are different from you. And I also try to give examples of why universal principles of justice are so important. And important for conservatives and important for liberals, to adhere to universal principles of justice. In terms of where I hope the work goes. I think that one of the things I think about a lot is this tension between fighting for racial justice and bridging political difference. And it raises this question: how do you care for people who have a very different understanding of justice than you do, or who are just blind to aspects of justice? That’s an area I’m very interested in. I’m also very interested in an area you mentioned, which is in our field trying to integrate SEL and moral development in a meaningful way.


How do you care for people who have a very different understanding of justice than you do, or who are just blind to aspects of justice?


N: I think, in some sense, that’s a struggle for many of us in the builders, is how to bridge those conversations. And also I would say, Rick, not also making it only about one population. So it’s not only about across political divides, and it’s not only about across racial lines, you know, it’s about all the kinds of divides that exist. You have to start from the care perspective to grab people. And we always start from the crisis of connection as the entry because then people will listen. Because otherwise if you start with the: what gets in the way of our connection? They just check out, especially more privileged people. And I guess the final question I have…

R: That makes a lot of sense to me.

N: But it’s interesting to me to hear that you do the same thing.

R: Well, what I said at the very beginning, we are trying to shock and shake people up a little bit. It’s deeply troubling that children, when you ask kids what’s most important to their parents, it’s not caring for others. They say achievement and happiness. And that’s alarming. It’s related in a sense to your crisis of connection point. We’re trying to shake people into awareness. I share this data with parents. We’ve probably asked 40,000 high school students, very diverse: Are your parents prouder of you if you get good grades or if you’re a caring person in your classroom? Teenagers are almost three times as likely to say their parents are prouder of them if they get good grades than if they are caring people in their classroom. And that’s really concerning.

N: And that’s parents across the country?

R: That’s teenagers across the country about their parents. We’ve also done parent surveys, and when you ask parents they tend to rank caring first, or caring and happiness first, and achievement fairly low.

N: Because you don’t want to look like bad parents.

R: There’s a big gap between what the parents are espousing and what teens are hearing and absorbing.


Teenagers are almost three times as likely to say their parents are prouder of them if they get good grades than if they are caring people in their classroom.


N: Well, it’s interesting, we know that we’re not supposed to value achievement, but when push comes to shove we end up privileging that. But it’s interesting that we know we’re not supposed to.

R: I know. Well, all this research is autobiographical too, I mean this is my kids giving me a hard time. “Really, achievement doesn’t matter to you?”

N: Right, yeah, exactly. Why do you think we are where we are as far as the lack of valuing of care? Where do you see as the location of our massive disconnection, what is this about, that we don’t care about caring?

R: I would say a few things. I’m not suggesting that we don’t care about caring. It’s gotten subordinated.

N: Yeah, it’s not so simple.

R: It’s gotten crowded out by the degree of the worry about achievement and happiness. And I think it has multiple causes. I think that our institutions, our schools, our higher institutions, used to be much more about being caring and respectful than they are now.

N: So what happened?

R: I think part of what happened is the intensity of… Well, a couple things happened. One is the intensity in the last 30 or 40 years of the focus on achievement. And the worry about it was partly driven by economic anxiety. It was partly driven in middle and upper class communities — and there are big race, class, and culture differences in what I’m describing here, too, which we should talk about. It also has this contagious quality in middle and upper class communities. I think that as soon as people start getting worried about their kids getting into a college or getting a good job, they start ramping each other up, so you know… Your neighbor gets an SAT tutor in the 10th grade. Then somebody else gets an SAT tutor in the 9th grade. So you think you have to get an SAT tutor in the ninth grade. And it just started to spiral on itself. I also think that there’s been a lot of really legitimate criticism in the 60s and 70s, you may remember, of traditional moral values and how white male hierarchical they were. The good news is that those values are being fiercely challenged now; the bad news is that people just stopped talking about ethical values. The baby was, in a sense, thrown out with the bathwater. I just continue to worry about these ethical questions getting kicked to the curb.

C: I’m wondering what brought you to the work. Could you tell me about a time or a moment or experience, something that’s really influenced the work that you do?

R: Yeah, Crystal, it’s a great question. One answer to this question is that my father was a real estate developer. He had a mid-career crisis and he decided to start in one of his buildings in Chicago, the Center for Psychosocial Studies. And Bob Kegan and Bob Levine were both members of the Center for Psychosocial Studies.

N: Oh, they were? Huh. What era was this? What decade is this?

R: This was like, 1970. Bob Levine was the first director of the Center, he used to live in Chicago and he was the first director. And then when I got into high school, I spent a summer doing interviews, moral dilemma interviews. Then I went to the education school and Larry Kohlberg was my advisor. And my parents were very involved in the civil rights movement and so it was part of the fabric of my household is partly the answer to this. The other answer to the question is that about 15 years ago, I became very aware with my own kids about the child-raising culture that I was raising them in in Cambridge. And I became concerned about the constant praising of kids, the intensity of the focus on achievement. The constant policing of kids’ moment-to-moment moods every ten minutes, like the most important thing is that you’re happy every moment.. And the lack of attention to others. Too many parents didn’t seem to be tuning their kids into other kids’s feelings and helping their kids empathize with other kids.I felt like it was affecting my own parenting, too, that I was becoming part of this culture. So I got recommitted to thinking about it and writing about it because it seemed so apparent to me that we are going in the wrong direction here.

To learn more about Rick Weissbourd’s work and organizations, visit his page at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Making Caring Common project.

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed or otherwise involved with PACH, please email nyu.pach@gmail.com.