Thinking on Education: Why are Discussions about Equality Flashpoints in the Classroom?
Human Rights Issues
These are some of the topics considered “controversial” in society, on social media, and in the classroom.
But why? In today’s society — more than 150 years since the end of America’s Civil War, almost 100 years since women gained voting rights in America, and 55 years since the Civil Rights Act — why are discussions about rights and equality still flashpoints?
Though our society made these important strides forward in decades past, strongly built foundations and beliefs still rumble beneath those issues. And sadly, there are too many people still unwilling to conduct an open dialogue about these uncomfortable truths, even today.
“It’s a conversation no one ever wants to have,” explained Loki Mulholland, Studies Weekly video manager, founding member of the Studies Weekly Diversity Board, Emmy award-winning filmmaker, and speaker on race relations in America, in a February 2018 presentation at Boise State University.
But he advocates having those conversations, because these issues still affect our students and people all over the world.
Globally, racial and gender equality are still under attack, explained Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at the United Nations, in two separate reports to the U.N. in March 2018 and July 2018.
“From crowds of youths marching to neo‑Nazi chants in Charlottesville, Warsaw and Berlin, to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of politicians in the highest levels of office worldwide … the assault on the human dignity of millions around the world has reached alarming proportions,” she said last March.
That is why we must still talk about equality and rights. Yes, it is sometimes scary, but we — as educators of our nation’s students — need to thoughtfully and purposefully wade into these murky and muddy issues.
“We don’t give our students enough credit. They know what is going on and it’s our job to connect the dots of what is happening today to the past, and how they fit into that picture. We should be empowering our students to make decisions and draw conclusions,” Mulholland said. “If we don’t talk about it and work towards improving inequality, then nothing is going to change. The students play a role in addressing the inequalities they see around them.”
Discussing Inequality in the Classroom
Despite the current shouting matches between current political leaders, discussions on equality and rights do not need to be divisive. And the classroom is one of the most perfect places to have these discussions.
“Young people need to understand equality and know their rights, to understand both how they should be treated, and how they should treat others. Teaching these topics creates a safe place for students to explore, discuss, challenge and form their own opinions and values,” the Equality and Human Rights Commission said in a May 2016 statement.
Beyond Inequality: Systemic Barriers
Even beyond discussions around equality, we should also teach our students about societal equity and the systemic barriers that women, people of color, and other minority groups continue to face. This idea is best defined through this image, originally created by Craig Froehle:
The true history of America includes elements of systemic racism, systemic sexism, and other systemic barriers to equality and equity for all. Our society still feels the effects of those today.
Mulholland pointed out just one example of this in his Boise presentation last year. He explained that just one generation ago, African American people — many who are still alive today — received truly inadequate and inaccurate education as a result of segregation. Education — which most of us believe today is the key to opportunity — was not equal or equitable.
Equality of Opportunity
In education, we’ve advanced far since that era of history. Today, educators implement a variety of processes that reach the learner where they are, to give them the best possibly equality of outcome. But we still have more to do, as explained in Stanford University’s “Equality of Opportunity and Education” project.
The Stanford project utilized philosopher Peter Westen’s idea that “opportunity is a three-way relationship between a person, some obstacles, and a desired goal. However, a person only has an opportunity if she has a chance of achieving that goal. One cannot have an opportunity if one faces insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible to secure the goal.”
Further, “for opportunities to be equal within a group, each member of that group must face the same relevant obstacles, none insurmountable, with respect to achieving the same desirable goal.”
It’s Only Us
Just like the fence image above illustrates, ideally all Americans may all be equal under the law, but may not have a true equality of opportunity.
Unfortunately, many American residents face insurmountable obstacles because of their gender, race, religion, culture, geography, socio-economic status, or other minority identification. Because of this, they cannot reach the same heights others can.
So, until we strategically remove these barriers and biases, we must still discuss equality and rights, and listen to and believe others’ experiences.
We need to stop seeing these issues as revolving around “us and them” and simply revolving around “us.”
“You have to be willing to open yourself up, to get uncomfortable and go there,” Mulholland concluded.
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