Q&A: Wahl Takes Reins as Social Foundations Program Coordinator

Rachel Wahl shares how taking a step back and asking important questions is critical to the work of improving education and human development.

Audrey Breen

This summer marked a transition in the UVA School of Education and Human Development’s Educational Psychology: Social Foundations of Education program area: Rachel Wahl, associate professor, has taken the reins as program coordinator.

Wahl, whose research examines whether and how people engage in dialogues to learn from each other across significant divides, is currently examining this phenomenon between police and communities of color as well as Trump and Clinton voters, and previously looked at this question between human rights educators and police in India. 

We checked in with Wahl about her vision for the Social Foundations program and why this area of scholarship is so critical to the work of improving education and human development.

Q. For those who may not exactly know, could you describe what the Social Foundations of Education is?

Our area of scholarship provides an opportunity to step back and ask some of the fundamental big questions in education. We explore questions that connect education to issues of justice, issues of human flourishing, and issues of identity, difference, and equity from the perspective of the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

We ask these questions in two different contexts. The first are courses that introduce students to the humanities and humanistic social sciences disciplines: The anthropology, philosophy, history, and sociology of education. The second are courses that directly address the intersection of education and these other issues.

For example, “The Civil Rights Movement and Education” examines the role of educators and students in the civil rights movement. “Schools and Society” examines how particular ideas about what it means to be an educated person have spread around the globe and how different societies have responded to these ideas about education.  The course, “Globalization, Childhood and Culture” examines different conceptions of a good childhood and good children at different places and at different times.

All of these courses are intended to open up questions about how to live and to understand how these questions have been answered differently at different points in time.

Q. What are you most looking forward to about serving as program coordinator?

I am most looking forward to the opportunity to connect more deeply to what I love about our field and share that with students.

Q. Why is the scholarship happening in Social Foundations so critical to the work of improving education and human development and what is the impact of this approach?

It matters a great deal to ask, “what works?” But if we never take the time to investigate the underlying questions about the purposes for which we want things to work, then we risk winning the battle but losing the war. That is, we might develop streamlined educational endeavors that are effective at attaining goals that nobody truly affirms as good. Instead, it is important to investigate clearly and thoroughly what ends are worth achieving in education and why, and what kinds of ambivalences, tensions, and possibilities shape the path that may lead to these ends. Otherwise, it is as if we are living by rote rather than reflectively.

Philosophy is a form of freedom, in the sense that it facilitates an opening up of what one most values and allows for greater clarity in the ability to turn in that direction. 

Q. What are some unique opportunities the Social Foundations program offers students that they may not find elsewhere?

This program provides the unique opportunity to step back and give direct attention to questions that often lurk in the background of educational practice, providing students with the time and community to explore for example questions about what is just and good. In a practical sense it is known to be one of the most flexible programs in the school. Students have a lot of freedom to choose electives from across the School of Education and Human Development as well as UVA to develop their own interests.

For example, I just spoke with an M.Ed. student this week who is really interested in equity and identity in the classroom and how school settings can support or undermine the expression of a child’s identity. She is integrating her core courses such as, “Schools and Society,” with electives from the Educational Psychology: Applied Developmental Science program on immigrant youth and in ethnic identity formation and socialization.

Q. How does the Social Foundations program shape students for their future roles?

Our aim is to make graduates more thoughtful, reflective, sensitive, and knowledgeable practitioners in a broad range of fields. This is not a vocational program that provides job training. Rather, we instill in students habits of inquiry, curiosity and depth that will enable them to do a better job in positions as diverse as working for an educational nonprofit or a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office at a university, or working as a classroom teacher, since some of our students already have teaching licenses.

Q. What are some of the most exciting areas of scholarship you see among your colleagues in Social Foundations?

Associate Professor Dianne Hoffman is doing some very exciting research on childhood in Haiti, looking at hope and resilience in Haitian children.

Professor Derrick Alridge is using oral histories to document how educators shaped the civil rights movement through his Teachers in the Movement project.

Also, our Melon Postdoctoral Scholar, Alexa Rodriguez, is conducting research on the relationship of education to colonial power.

Q: What is next for your work on dialogue?

I am currently conducting follow up studies on each of the groups I studied previously.

I am currently writing a book manuscript supported by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation that examines the relationship between dialogue and democracy. The book asks the following questions:

  • What is it about the contemporary period that makes exchanges across ideological fault lines so controversial?
  • What happens when people nonetheless engage in dialogue across political divisions?
  • What is the meaning of dialogue for changes in individuals’ political orientations and what is the meaning of dialogue for institutional political change?
  • How does dialogue interact with other methods of exerting influence in a democracy such as the forms of pressure exerted by activists?
  • In what ways might dialogue cause harm and when and how might it strengthen movements for social justice? 

Q. What should a prospective student do if they are interested in studying Social Foundations here?

Any interested prospective students should check out our website and see if our classes are interesting to the. They are also welcome to contact me or another faculty member and, of course, fill out an application!

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