The New York Times recently ran a major story about the alienation felt by minority students at private schools. The editors were besieged with letters in response.

I work at an organization that places high-achieving, low-income students at private schools. Imagine you do too, and you learn the following: A well-meaning but ill-informed teacher at a predominantly white boarding school tries to make his English class more multicultural by teaching the students a South African poem. The one black student in the class recognizes the author of the poem as a white supremacist. Furious at yet another incident of insensitivity on campus, she storms out of the class and calls you, who helped her get a scholarship to attend school, to say she wants out. She’s tired and has had enough.

Do you spend your time convincing the head of school that she needs to invest resources in making the campus more culturally sensitive? Or do you spend your time counseling the student, encouraging her to take a calmer, more philosophical approach to life?

Of course, you do both. But these two approaches represent very different theories of “effectiveness.” One might be called the “equity and justice” approach because it focuses on changing material circumstances to make them fairer for all students. The other could be called the “personal enlightenment” approach because it emphasizes that how students choose to regard the world is far more important than the circumstances that they face.

Why do I say these are very different theories? Because one says that right and wrong are clearly knowable and that we should devote our energies to correcting injustice. The other says right and wrong are rarely absolute, and therefore we should focus our efforts on encouraging students (or anyone, for that matter) to take a broad, generous perspective whenever possible.

For those of us who work in the field of social change, the first theory is obviously familiar. It has deep roots in the liberal tradition of progressive reform. For two centuries, progressive reformers have sought to reduce the baleful effects of class stratification, racism, sexism, religious prejudice, and other forms of social, cultural, and institutionalized bigotry. In the world of activism and social change, it is natural to feel that one’s own view is “right” and that someone else’s view, or some existing policy, is “wrong.”

Not so, say many philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders. Right and wrong are usually a matter of opinion, they argue. Disputes rarely solve problems; rather, they are more likely to exacerbate tensions and increase division. Even when one side wins in the short-term, there may be a significant price paid down the road. The personal enlightenment approach stresses the value of “perspective-taking” and humility. It says: better to empathize than to judge, better to accept than to resist. Ultimately, it focuses on self-growth rather than social change.

When stretched to its limits, the personal enlightenment approach can easily sound simplistic and naive, like a lesson from a soupy self-help book. At its worst, it can devolve into something condescending and contemptuous. The writers of Glee use the character of Sue Sylvester, the evil cheerleading coach, to mock the shortcomings of the personal enlightenment approach:

I’ll often yell at homeless people, “Hey, how’s that homelessness working out for you? Give not being homeless a try, huh?” ... Let me tell you something, there’s not much of a difference between a stadium full of cheering fans and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise; how you take it is up to you. Convince yourself they’re cheering for you. You do that, and someday they will.

The last few lines could be straight out of a Tony Robbins personal empowerment training session, and yet I don’t mean that dismissively. Being able to take criticism in stride—to be able to hear it as “just a lot of noise”—is an essential life skill. It is especially important for students entering environments where everyone else is wealthier or whiter or more worldly. It was certainly important for me, personally, growing up gay in a society that told me loudly and clearly that I was inferior and unworthy.

So how do we reconcile the equity and justice approach with a commitment to imparting the lessons of personal enlightenment? I think there are two answers to this question. The first is what I call the principle of “tactical empathy.” It is important to teach those we wish to encourage that empathy can help them achieve their goals. Perspective-taking has pragmatic value. If a student wants to do well on an English exam, she needs to be able to see the world as her English teacher sees it—even if she thinks her English teacher is sexist or heterosexist. 

The second is what I call the spirit of “gracious rebellion.” We do need to teach students (and social service clients) to be patient and compassionate, but we also need to encourage them to speak truth, politely, to power. Here I think of Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has long insisted upon the value of “fighting” for peace.

“Reconciliation,” says Hanh, “is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side.”

Students need to know they are entitled to disrupt the status quo if they feel policies are unfair or discriminatory. Being good at history and math is important, but so is having the courage to challenge conventional wisdom. I want my students to do well in life and achieve their dreams (which usually include lots of fortune and fame), but I also want them to grow up to be passionate champions for a kinder and more compassionate world.

I have come to the conclusion that we serve students best when we teach them the skills of both “tactical empathy” and “gracious rebellion.” Helping students learn to dance between anger and bemusement, between outrage and understanding, may be the biggest gift we can give them.