Are we finally at a tipping point, in the long march for equality? Will the events of 2020 prove transformative or ephemeral? A chat this morning with my colleague Padme Raina at Ashbury College School in Ottowa about their budding pluralism project reenforces the idea that the answer to these questions come down to one word: “we”.
A society built upon concepts like democracy, equality, and pluralism is fundamentally rooted in the precondition that we have more in common than not, and that we share in opportunities, challenges, rights, and responsibilities ordained by some combination of the human and the divine. In order for our society to survive, these points of commonality must exist on a plane higher than our borders of political, social, economic, or ethnic affinity.
In 1963, when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, a large minority of Americans either overtly supported racial segregation or saw Dr. King and supporters of racial equality as much more “the other” than the “we”. Now we show the recording of that speech to millions of students across the country every year, and the vast majority of Americans would say that they support his core aspirations. They emotionally march alongside Dr. King in the hope that someday we shall all be “free at last”.
And yet issues of equality and pluralism still deeply divide us. People of color, women, people with disabilities, religious minorities, and those whose gender and sexual orientations do not fall within “traditional” boundaries are objectively NOT afforded equal rights, freedoms, and respect. We are still very much a society that pre-judges, and is therefore prejudiced. This is not opinion; it is fact. Set aside the tiny minority of overt bigots; many of us get misty-eyed watching Dr. King’s speech, but waver on the ideas that Black lives matter, that women deserve equal pay for equal work, or that the public education of a child should be equitably funded regardless of the wealth of their parents.
Thousands of school communities, and millions of students, teachers, and parents, will engage this fall on reflection, discussions, and actions around issues of equity, equality, and social justice. My question is this: if a large majority of Americans agree with what Dr. King said more than 50 years ago, why are we still struggling with the same issues today?
I think the answer is simple: we still don’t actively teach and learn “we”. Most white Americans can emotionally appreciate Dr. King the orator, but we simply cannot understand the experience of being Black in America. The vast majority of Americans believe that women should have every right afforded to men, and yet we still have not passed the Equal Rights Amendment. We still actively discriminate against our fellow Americans because they were born to love someone of their own sex. We look past the dire poverty of our Native communities as if they were hidden behind a cloak of invisibility.
America is still a country that talks a great deal about equality, but we have proven remarkably unwilling to actually do the tough job of achieving it.
So here is my challenge to educators: Learning means learning”we”.
Learning built around values like empathy, equity, and pluralism have to be at the absolute core, not the periphery, of what we do and who we are as school communities. Those values are not “fuzzy” of “soft”; they are not liberal or conservative. In busy schedules and content-jammed curriculum, we simply have to discard some of what we have done in the past to make room for that which is even more important. If not, then 2020 is not a tipping point. If not, then we admit that learning geometry or chemistry is more important than learning how to enact those gender-imperfect few words that should bind us ALL: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”