This morning, I had breakfast with an older friend who spent his long career moving through public and private education systems from Tennessee to California. His own education began in biology, but he spent most of his career in administration, solving problems and developing innovative educational approaches. He worked as a high school teacher and principal and later became president of a private college. Although he is now nearing his eightieth year, his mind is sharp and our conversations provide him an outlet for his experiences and the chance to mentor a young scholar.
This morning, our discussion began on the topic of social equality, specifically the ways in which societal structures have created and perpetuate forms of oppression that affect certain groups more adversely. For instance, my friend suggested that research studies and his own experiences show that stable family backgrounds (in a variety of forms) often allow children to become more successful. Observing that some communities in the United States struggle to establish and maintain stable families, we agreed that it is important for researchers to investigate the causes of those struggles, rather than dismiss the communities as flawed.
From there, we turned to education. My friend explained that he has observed changes in educational policy that attempts to create a level playing field by removing any discretion from the hands of educators. In his early years as an instructor, he was able to access student records to better understand the students in his course, shaping his teaching to fit those individuals. Within eight years, however, those records became private, inaccessible to teachers. The argument against access was based on cases of misuse by some instructors. Perhaps they ignored students with lower reading levels and focused only on star pupils. Whatever the case, the potential for negative uses of that information persuaded authorities to prevent all access.
In another example, he explained the zero tolerance policies that were enacted in many public school systems. Such policies were intended to prevent inappropriate or dangerous behaviours, but often caught many unknowing or innocent students in the widely cast, intolerant net. For instance, a young child with a headache, given a single aspirin pill by an unknowing parent, might be suspended when a teacher finds the pill. Although he noted that many schools have been working to develop more effective policies, the leveling affect of zero tolerance was potentially harmful and offered little benefit to administrators, educators, or students.
On hearing these examples, I recalled the ideas of feminist theorists and scholars whose work I have recently been reading for a course in feminist theory. During the Second Wave of feminism, activists carried on a debate about whether or not women should put emphasis on their similarities to men or their differences from men. On one hand, women had long been arguing that females were able to carry out the same tasks as men, were as intelligent as men, and deserved the same rights as men. On the other hand, a new generation of feminists struggled with the idea that masculinity and manhood provided the ideal for which they should strive.
The emergence of black feminist movements complicated that discussion by including in feminist discourse another spectrum of difference: race. In the interest of female unity, women’s movements (often and largely composed of white women) had long repressed (or even oppressed) differences in race and class amongst their members. In 1973, activists who had become disillusioned with the larger women’s movement founded the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).
The creation of the organization did not, however, ensure that black feminists became accepted and involved in the conversations or conferences about feminist activism. At the 1979 Second Sex conference, Audre Lorde began her talk by saying
I stand here as a black lesbian feminist, having been invited to comment within the only panel at this conference where the input of black feminists and lesbians is represented. What this says about the vision of this conference is sad, in a country where racism, sexism and homophobia are inseparable.
Lorde continues her talk by focusing on the importance of including a diversity of individuals and perspectives when discussing feminism in the United States. She argues, “Community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” For Lorde, differences are a crucial part of society that ensure creativity.
While discussing educators and students with my friend, I realized that the policies he was describing serve to eliminate difference in preference for similarity. As a result, educators must use the same teaching method with every student, regardless of their differences. Students receive the same information, despite their different interests. The creativity of learning (or reshaping society) can be lost in a well-intentioned, but misguided quest for equality.